Legislative proposal seeks to protect native wild rice

ST. PAUL -- A legislative proposal is being floated to protect Minnesota's native wild rice by delaying attempts to research modified varieties of the crop.

ST. PAUL -- A legislative proposal is being floated to protect Minnesota's native wild rice by delaying attempts to research modified varieties of the crop.

The seemingly minor debate has sparked impassioned pleas from groups on both sides of the issue. American Indians argue wild rice is culturally important and needs protection. Researchers and some legislators are concerned a moratorium would harm the state's reputation as friendly toward biotechnology research.

Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, is sponsoring a bill he said will protect native wild rice by instituting a two-year moratorium on field research of genetically engineered varieties. The moratorium would kick in if someone applied for a test plot within the United States to grow the modified variety, which state Department of Agriculture officials say probably won't happen anytime soon because of lack of interest and cost.

Citing its cultural and religious importance to Chippewa tribes, Moe said extra time would be needed to study the potential impact of genetically modified varieties on the native crop. Moe's district includes the Leech Lake Reservation.

"This is a different animal, so we need to ask more questions," Moe said of native wild rice, stressing that he is not opposed to genetic engineering research in general.


Supporters and opponents of the bill crowded a hearing room earlier this week as the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee considered the proposal.

Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Land Recovery Project told legislators that wild rice is sacred to the Chippewa culture. American Indians worry if a test plot is issued for genetically engineered wild rice, the modified variety will spread to stands of the native crop.

"We don't know what would happen if it was genetically altered," said LaDuke, a rural Ponsford resident and former Green Party candidate for vice president.

Opponents of a moratorium worry about Minnesota's reputation in the biotechnology industry. They said genetically modified crop research has proved beneficial in the past.

Beth Nelson, president of the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council, said a moratorium would institute a "slippery slope" that could affect all crops in Minnesota. Nelson said not all of the council's members oppose Moe's proposal, but most do.

"I'm concerneKd about a message," added Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who is chairman of the agriculture panel. "What message is this committee going to send to the rest of the world?"

The Republican-controlled kgriculture Committee is scheduled to continue discussion on the bill next week, but it's not clear if there is enough support to even get it approved by the panel.

The bill's chance in the Senate doesn't appear any better. The proposal was directed to the Senate Agriculture, Veterans and Gaming Committee. Sen. Jim Vickerman, the committee's chairman, said he won't give the bill a hearing unless he has assurances that groups interested in the bill compromise on the contentious issue.


"I'm not going to put it through the committee if there's just going to be a blow-up," Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, said.

Realizing there is little chance the Legislature will pass the bill, Moe said he is considering an option outside the traditional legislative process.

"If our goal is in fact to accomplish something, we have to be open to alternative means to accomplish that goal," he said.

Negotiating with the interested groups, Moe is trying to convince the Department of Agriculture to make changes to its rules regarding genetic crop research requests. He said he has suggested the department extend the period of time it allows for public input before allowing a wild rice genetic engineering project to move forward. He also would like to see a more rigorous environmental impact study.

Paul Strandberg, a project manager for the Agriculture Department who's working on the issue with Moe, said the agency respects the "uniqueness" of wild rice and its importance to American Indians.

"But we also don't want to send mixed messages about engineered products," Strandberg said.

The Department of Agriculture will consider Moe's proposal, but Strandberg said he's not sure if it will be resolved this legislative session.

"We're looking at it," he said.

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