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Manoomin, seed sovereignty and genetics

It is the “wild rice making” moon again. This past week, I took my l5-year-old son out ricing on the Ottertail River. We were far from the din of television, Game Boys, NASCAR and big cities. It’s sort of a miracle in this millennium, and somehow immensely comforting.

Back at the wild rice parching mill, youths and elders alike, men and women, hoist bags of rice from the back of pick up trucks, wipe their brows of sweat, ‘rice beards’ and rice worms. They smile, as they receive a fair price for their hard work, and are reaffirmed in who they are as Anishinaabeg. The wild rice harvest, indeed this Manoominike Giizis, the “wild rice making” moon, is upon us here in the North Country, and it is an amazing and unique gift to the people of this region.

Far from the Ottertail River, two incidents of contamination involving experimental genetically engineered (GE, transgenic) organisms have been in the news. Both incidents send a shudder through the rice beds. Chronicled by the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s editors on Aug. 22, GE bentgrass escaped its testing ground in Oregon. The same day, news was released that a German company was responsible for the contamination of virtually the entire U.S. crop of long grain white rice with a GE variety never intended for human consumption. The news sent stock prices into a steep decline and resulted in European and Asian markets strictly limiting their importation of all U.S. long grain white rice. Both of these events have a direct bearing on the continuing campaign to protect Minnesota’s lake-grown natural stands of wild rice, and indeed on the food security of Native peoples across the continent and Pacific.

A growing international movement for “food security” and “seed sovereignty” is gaining momentum in indigenous farming and harvesting communities, as the forces of globalization and seed ownership increasingly restrict industrial food sources. That is to say that Monsanto and DuPont, the two largest chemical companies in the world are also the two largest seed companies in the world, and increasingly, patented seeds, owned by giant seed companies are becoming the primary source of seed for major crops like corn, canola and soybeans.

This is the case in the United States (where up to 70 percent of some of these crops are not only sourced from these corporations, but also GE). On the contrary, increasingly, Third World countries in Africa and South America are challenging seed ownership, and indeed, even refusing seed and agricultural aid, in the terms proposed by the United States and other major world forces.

While all of this may seem far away from the pueblos of New Mexico, the corn fields of the Six Nations, or the wild rice beds of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, the reality is that genetic engineering and patenting are being challenged here on Turtle Island as well.

For the past five years, Minnesota’s Ojibwe tribes have been trying to win comprehensive protection for the lake-grown wild rice that is an integral part of their economic, cultural and spiritual well-being. The University of Minnesota has completed the preliminary genetic work on wild rice and this makes the planting of test plots of experimental GE wild rice more likely with each passing year. Despite five years of work, the Ojibwe, and the people of Minnesota, still do not have any protection for manoomin, the sacred food and the state grain.

This spring, after some hard work by the Ojibwe and Minnesota legislators, a letter of petition, signed by more than 70 legislators, promoting the protection of wild rice was secured, but only after a pitched battle with the biotech industry and the University of Minnesota. At the legislative hearings, both the biotech industry and the university testified against protecting wild rice from genetic engineering, pushing instead for an open-door policy for the future. Biotech giant Monsanto unsurprisingly argued that such protection would send a “chilling message” to the biotech industry, and perhaps diminish its investment into the state.

The Ojibwe, joined by increasing numbers of Minnesotans, believe differently. That is to say, many Minnesotans believe that wild rice is unique. It is the only grain indigenous to North America, and it grows in natural ecosystems, although now, in many cases, directly adjacent to paddy rice fields. The potential for contamination of natural rice stands, as evidenced by the movement of GE bentgrass beyond what the public was told were safe distances, resulting in crosspollination of unregulated transgenes with wild relatives (wild rice is also a grass), presents a haunting image, one which the Ojibwe and many other Minnesotans do not want to see.

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Others are concerned as well. After contamination was discovered in rice bins in Arkansas and Missouri long grain white rice farmers from Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and California filed a lawsuit against Bayer CropScience. They charge the corporation with allowing an experimental strain of their GE white rice to taint the domestic crop and damage the U.S. export market. In the case of the escaped bentgrass experiment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was shortchanged in its regulation, despite legal action taken by an environmental group warning that the safeguards were inadequate. The Ojibwe and many Minnesotans believe that there is no insurance for wild rice without a moratorium on open-air testing of GE wild rice.

The biotech industry is, in this case, responsible for its own bad publicity. While the Ojibwe and others do not wish to be drawn into the larger genetic engineering debate, spin doctors are working overtime to play down the economic consequences of the genetic contamination stories of the past weeks. In the meantime, rice farmers now face the loss of exports to foreign markets as well as great concern domestically. Japan has banned the crop outright. The European Union is demanding that expensive genetic tests be conducted to guarantee that there is no presence of the unapproved, unregulated GE organisms in exported long grain white rice.

This is sure to have ongoing negative economic consequences because, since the story broke, it has come to light that the contamination is believed to affect almost the entire crop nationwide. If a similar situation were to occur to Minnesota’s wild rice, is there any doubt that sales of wild rice from both Native hand harvesters and paddy rice farmers would suffer given that approximately half of all wild rice is sold overseas? As a gourmet specialty crop, are we to believe that there is a market for “genetically engineered wild rice” in the world’s 2,700 GE free zones?

The University of Minnesota could take some notes on the work of other universities. The University of Hawaii is one of the largest biotech university systems in the country, with more than 2,000 open-air genetic test plots in the state, many of them in collaboration with the biotech industry. Our controversy is similar to that over taro, a sacred food of Native Hawaiians who, like the Ojibwe, do not believe that this food, deemed to be their relative, should be either GE or patented. After deliberation over the past couple of years, the university agreed to abandon their genetic engineering of Hawaiian taro. Then, in June of this year, the university literally tore up their patents. “It is as if the patents were never filed,” said Gary Ostrander, vice chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in an article from the Hawaii Observer.

Since January, Hawaiians have been pushing the university to give up patents it had obtained on three varieties of disease-resistant taro it developed. The Hawaiians argue that taro as the “elder brother of the Hawaiians” should not be the subject of transgenic experimentation.

After a leaf blight wiped out 90 percent of the taro in Samoa in the 1990s, Ostrander said, University of Hawaii scientists were asked to help. They used traditional breeding techniques to cross Palauan and Hawaiian taro to produce three strains resistant to the disease, and the university obtained plant patents on them all in 2002. After some backroom negotiations, the university filed “terminal disclaimers” with the U.S. Patent Office that dissolved its proprietary interests. According to Ostrander, it had issued 13 licenses to use the plant, but licensees no longer owe royalties or any other obligation to the university. “I hope this is an opportunity to continue to develop our existing relationship based on mutual trust and respect, as undoubtedly we will face other issues as we go forward,” Ostrander said, adding that he had come to appreciate the Hawaiians’ point of view on the issue.

Similarly, this summer, the pueblos of New Mexico joined Hispanic communities in a declaration of seed sovereignty, reaffirmed seed saving traditions, rejecting patents and GE seed, and urging the biotech industry to label its seeds and foods.

The Ojibwe calendar of the “maple sugaring” moon, “freezing over” moon, “strawberry” moon and the “wild rice making” moon are essential to who we are as a people. The Ojibwe calendar is not unlike the calendars of other indigenous peoples – calendars based on the moon and the land, not a commemoration of historic figures elsewhere. In this Ojibwe moon of “wild rice making,” we reaffirm that relationship to the land and to who we are as Anishinaabeg. That tradition, far from the din of industrialized food production, is not only at the center of a worldwide controversy of who gets to control the food and seeds of the generations to come, but, as such is strategic in discussions between indigenous peoples and global corporations.

That tradition and ricing on the Ottertail River is also how we stay human, stay Anishinaabeg. We plan on continuing that into the next millennium.