RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When is rice not really rice? When you buy it from one of the dozens of food companies out there marketing "wild rice" that isn't, in fact, wild at all. A majority of what is marketed as wild rice today comes from California, where it's grown in paddies from hybrid seed derived from the truly wild rice that grows in the Great Lakes region. Aside from the fact that you're buying "wild" rice that isn't really wild, the resulting product, sold at cheaper prices than truly wild rice, is undercutting the market for honest-to-goodness wild rice hand-harvested using traditional means by Native Americans.
True wild rice grains, high in protein, fiber, folic acid and B vitamins (and naturally gluten-free), are the noncultivated seeds of the marsh grass Zizania aquatica, indigenous to the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and parts of Canada. For over a thousand years, Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) and other Native American and Canadian tribes have been harvesting wild rice, or manoomin, using sticks, a canoe, and a pushing pole in the months of August and September. The grains are then dried and roasted, or "parched," often over wood fires. In a good year, they can harvest over 50,000 pounds, providing income and employment to native tribes in desperate need of both.
"The rice of the Anishinaabeg comes truly from our people, and half of our people live in economic poverty," says Ojibwe environmentalist Winona LaDuke, the executive director of Honor the Earth and Native Harvest, and the founding director for the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which is working to protect indigenous wild rice stocks. Unemployment on the White Earth Indian Reservation has reached as high as 50 percent. "This is a food and a crop which provides for us, allowing us to purchase fuel oil, chainsaws, propane, new cars and winter coats," says LaDuke. "Wild rice is critical to our economy and way of life."
In addition to the glut of cheaper, domesticated wild rice, true wild rice is also under threat from genetic engineering (attempts to genetically modify rice with higher vitamin A levels would wipe out wild versions), as well as proposed mining projects that would disrupt the lake and river ecosystems that house wild rice beds. "Our wild rice is our most sacred food," she adds. "This is the only place in the world where it grows, and it is an incredible gift from the creator. This gift requires our diligence and protection." There's a distinct flavor difference, she adds, between the hand-harvested grass knocked into canoes the traditional way and the commercially produce wild rice grown in paddies using chemicals, fertilizers and a combine.
Published on: November 11, 2011