Crop failure rate for wild rice is increasing with climate change

For some Ojibwe, engineering a solution isn't an option

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A stalk of developing wild rice stands in Big Rice Lake, a 3,000 acre lake south of Remer, Minn., on Aug. 5, 2014.
John Enger | MPR News 2014

Ojibwe communities consider northern wild rice “a gift from the creator.” A prophecy telling their ancestors to settle “where food grew out of the water” drew their tribes from the Eastern Seaboard to the Upper Midwest, where lakes were abundant with wild rice, or manoomin in Ojibwe.

Now that gift is at risk of disappearing from the landscape that has nourished generations.

“This is a plant that’s adapted to northern, harsh growing conditions. So even in northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, that’s the southern edge of its range,” said Peter David, a wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Rising temperatures are pushing ideal growing conditions deeper into Canada. In Minnesota, for instance, the average winter temperature has risen 6 degrees since 1970.

David, who has spent three decades working with Ojibwe elders to monitor wild rice beds, said the plant relies on long, hard winters to germinate. The frigid landscape may also help hold back competing plant species and pests that would otherwise harm rice crops.

He also said wetter springs and summers may be contributing to fungal disease. And more frequent heavy storms risk destroying harvests and the man-made infrastructure that supports some rice beds.

The result, David said, is a stark departure from the “four-year rule” that elders taught him: In a four-year span, you’ll have one really good wild rice harvest, two so-so harvests and one bad harvest.

He points to Dean Lake in Crow Wing County.

“The failure rate on Dean Lake in the last dozen years or so is approaching 50 percent,” David said. “Some years it’s open water. Other years it looks like a gigantic hay field. And some years, with a disease that we’re seeing, brown spot, it looks like a brown field instead of a vibrant green field.”

While humans can genetically modify some plants to withstand the effects of climate change, David said that isn’t an option here.

“To the [Ojibwe], they believe manoomin is a gift from the creator given in its perfect form. And I think there is resistance based on that belief to doing things like attempting to genetically breed a way out of this,” he said. “What they’d really like to do is maintain healthy landscapes that are still capable of producing natural crops of wild rice.”

To hear David on Climate Cast, click play on the audio player above.

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