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Tribes seek wild rice protection

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's Chippewa American Indians say wild rice is so important that the state needs to protect it from being contaminated by genetically modified rice.

"Wild rice is more important to us than you probably realize," Leech Lake tribal Chairman George Goggleye on Tuesday told a Senate Committee considering regulating genetically modified wild rice. "I urge the committee to honor the first people of this state by letting this pass."

"Wild rice is integrated in our lives," added Bois Forte tribal Chairman Kevin Leecy.

The committee approved the bill, but its author said provisions could change by the time it reaches its next committee hearing. A similar bill is making its way through the House.

For the past few years, attempts have failed to institute a moratorium on genetically modified wild rice. This year's measures would require a study of how modified wild rice would affect the environment, including other wild rice, before it could be planted in Minnesota. Several senators said the provision would have the effect of banning modified wild rice.

Researchers modify grain in laboratories to make it grow faster, resist pests or improve other properties. However, Chippewa members consider natural wild rice as a religious and cultural symbol, and say modifications are not acceptable.

About 60,000 acres of northern Minnesota waters contain wild rice.

Thomas Kelliher, representing the bioscience industry, said he fears that if the state requires an environmental impact statement for modified wild rice, the next step could be doing the same for other grains. Much of the state's soybean and corn crops are genetically modified.

Another bill opponent, lobbyist Phil Griffin, said if the bill becomes law he fears it would send a signal to bioscientists, who may think the state does not want them to work in Minnesota.

Richard Robinson, Leech Lake's natural resources director, said the bill is like ones that protected the bald eagle and wolf.

Bill author Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, said he would consider debate during Tuesday's meeting and may change the measure before the proposal reaches its next committee hearing.

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, and other senators said they would prefer just making use of genetically modified wild rice illegal instead of requiring a study before any attempt to plant it.

Several witnesses told senators there are no efforts to genetically modify wild rice, but bill supporters said protection is needed now so it doesn't happen.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.