I’m enjoying a long-overdue family vacation in northern Minnesota, home to real wild rice. Pssst…here’s a secret: most “wild rice” you find in your local grocery store is not, in fact, wild rice. Taste the real stuff, and you’ll know that a certain orange-bagged “rice” is nothing like the nutty goodness of wild rice. To be technical, wild rice isn’t really rice at all. It’s a water-grass seed, and it has been around for thousands of years, growing mainly west and north of the Great Lakes.
True wild rice, when harvested in Minnesota state waters, is still harvested using the traditional American Indian methods: gathered in a canoe powered only by a pole, using only two beater sticks to collect the grains. Talk about sustainable methods!
But wild rice is at the heart of controversy over what can and can’t be called wild, and who can and can’t harvest it. The cultivation of wild rice began at the University of Minnesota in the 50s, and since then, cultivated rice, grown in paddies, has been a majority of the wild rice market. The Ojibwe’s truly wild, lake-harvested rice, has been consistently priced out of the market. By 1986, 95% of wild rice in the American market was harvested in California paddies, but still marketed as “wild rice”. Not only that, but lake-harvested rice is also suffering from the effects of climate change, lessening yields in an already precarious market.
A California company called Nor-Cal has chosen to patent wild rice, a blow to indigenous people such as the Ojibwe, for whom wild rice has been an integral part of life for generations. Nor-Cal’s wild rice contains terminator technology. The rice itself cannot reproduce, forcing cultivators to buy more seed.
The debate continues as to who “owns” wild rice. To find out more on the subject, or to take action, check out Save Wild Rice.