Q&A with David Biesboer, wild rice researcher who’s fatalistic about its future

April 2, 2021 10:58 am

David Biesboer, ecophysiologist, teaching students at Itasca State Park. Courtesy photo.

Wild rice is revered in Minnesota, the state with the most acres of naturally occurring wild rice. It is also a sacred medicine and food for some Indigenous people. In their origin story, the creator told the Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe people, to find “food which grows upon the water.”

But the grain is also a source of political division between tribal bands seeking to protect the beds and business and labor leaders who say they can create good mining and construction jobs without undue threat to wild rice. Lakefront homeowners have also proven to be a threat to the crop. David Biesboer recently retired as director of wild rice research at the University of Minnesota, where he was a professor for 37 years. He shared his thoughts on the grain he’s spent his life studying. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A thick stand of wild rice near harvest time. Courtesy of David Biesboer.

What is the history of wild rice in Minnesota?

It’s a semi-domesticated crop that’s been wild for a very long time. When glaciers left Minnesota about 30,000 years ago, wild rice probably came from down south. There’s 10,000-year-old evidence showing Indigenous groups collecting it. Old pots have been found in communities that had wild rice. There are really two species: southern wild rice and northern wild rice — which dominates Minnesota. Its closest living relative seems to be white rice. It grows wild, and farmers harvest it. They put big dikes in the land and fill them with water because this is an annual, aquatic species. 

What motivated you to study and research wild rice?

When I started in 1980, it wasn’t very well-studied. And I’ve had a lot of other interests along the way, but wild rice is a little bit endangered because people are building pipelines, draining lakes, a million people live along lake shorelines and they don’t like wild rice. It’s just viewed as a slimy weed in their front yard around their dock. And so they want to eradicate it; they don’t know what it is and they don’t care. There’s a lot of boat traffic and waves that seem to wash it out along the shoreline, and it only grows in water a meter deep or less. It can be disturbed quite easily by human activity. 

Why is Minnesota such a good place for wild rice to grow and thrive?

It has a lot to do with animal-plant populations. And it’s a plant that’s adapted to colder regions like Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Canada. It likes mucky bottom swamps and lakes and water that’s not too deep. And it’s been here for thousands of years. 

What in nature threatens wild rice?

There’s a problem called “shattering,” which occurs when the seeds ripen. Normally, they shatter and come off the stem of the plant and fall into the water for next year’s crop. But if there’s a big windstorm or thunderstorm and the rice is almost ripe, it will knock all the grains off into the water. One of our research objectives for a long time has been looking for genes that control shattering so the seeds stay on the plant until they can be harvested. Wind can also affect pollination. Other problems include insects, wild rice worms, fungi and diseases that can damage the plant. Last, if lake levels change while the plant is developing, it can affect its ability to stand up.

Talk about Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline. 

I think over time Native tribes have allowed the construction because of poverty on the reservations. There are hundreds of people working on the pipeline, which is a lot of salaries. From a monetary standpoint, there’s probably going to be billions of dollars in oil coming from the tar sands of Canada. It’s not the best oil in the world, but it’s a viable source of petroleum. But here you have this head to head: Culture versus economics. And COVID-19 is clogging up the economy and people aren’t making any money. 

(Editor’s note: Fond du Lac Band and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe do not oppose the pipeline; Red Lake, White Earth and Mille Lacs Bands of Ojibwe remain opposed. Also, there are 137 tribal members employed by the pipeline project.) 

So the pipeline is important economically and a safe way to transport oil — it’s my opinion that this oil is going to come here anyway, probably by train. And trains are a problem because they crash once in a while and spill their oil all over the place. Green energy isn’t going to happen at scale for a long time, and petroleum is important. And I was an ecologist, plant biologist, and I don’t want to see the ecology of all these sites ruined. These pipelines are underground, out of sight and safer in the long run. And spills are the price you pay for modern society. How do you beat corporate money? 

In a good handful of Minnesota lakes, the wild rice has gone extinct. It’s in trouble because all of our ecosystems are in trouble. There’s nothing that’s really left alone anymore. 

What would it mean for Minnesota if it disappeared?

I think it would probably fall into the category of so many extinctions that have occurred and are occurring. Even though it’s about a multi-million-dollar business, it’d probably just disappear and be a blip in history. 

What about tribal nation farming? 

Some Native American farmers grow wild rice, and most of them are very upset if many Europeans even touch it. I had a lot of problems collecting it because it’s viewed as spiritual and holy. A lot of the rice grown by Indigenous farmers is sold to Uncle Ben’s for those wild rice mixes. And others sell it roadside and in local stores. It’s very marketable. And the majority of it comes from farmers up north.

What makes wild rice so political?

It’s culture versus industrial uses, Native American uses and farmer uses. I think the controversy is rooted in the reservation system because historically and politically, they’ve always said wild rice belongs to the Native American community and no one else. No one. Europeans might say it belongs on a plate while Native Americans say there are spirits involved. It’s really rooted in that cultural difference between Native Americans and Europeans. And I’m a scientist; to me, it’s an aquatic weed, and you get a little foodstuff out of it. 

Is there anything the average person could do to help stop wild rice from disappearing?

No. For example, you’re going to buy a lake lot and you’re told you can’t put a dock in the water. You’ll say, ‘Screw that, Department of Natural Resources.’ No, you’ll upset the wild rice bed. It’s that kind of attitude and the Western idea of using the land until there’s nothing left. 

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Gracie Stockton
Gracie Stockton

Gracie Stockton is a senior at the University of Minnesota. She was awarded the 2021 Kaufman scholarship from the Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication and joined the Reformer as an intern. Gracie also studies theatre and Russian, and is an artist in her free time.