N.B. This research is only possible thanks to our invaluable collaboration with the Myera Group, NOHFC, Protein Innovation Supercluster, Lakehead University, and several Treaty #3 Indigenous communities

First Things First, What Is Wild Rice?

Manoomin, the Anishnaabemowin (Ojibwe) word for wild rice, translates to “the good berry.” And it’s easy to see why.


For the Anishnaabe, wild rice holds important cultural significance: it’s a gift from the creator that’s alive and interwoven with their identity, journey and relationship to the land. As such, its highly respected and features in a variety of dishes, medicines, and ceremonies.


It traditionally grows in lakes and wetlands where it’s harvested by hand, with people knocking the rice off the plant. The harvest of wild rice is a significant tradition in Anishnaabe culture where communities come together not only to work but also share knowledge and teachings.


But this way of growing and harvesting wild rice often isn’t how it ends up on our plates. In fact, the wild rice that’s widely commercially available isn’t even wild. Around 50% of the wild rice consumed in Canada is imported from the United States where it’s grown in flooded paddies and considered cultivated wild rice. This technique isn’t currently used in Canada, where wild rice can primarily be found in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario.

Small Grain, Big Problems

Though flooded paddies have been successful in meeting the high commercial demand for wild rice, they also pack a serious environmental punch. Currently, the industry standard depth for growing cultivated wild rice is 30 cm. But the excess overlying water creates oxygen-poor conditions that harbour bacteria that emit carbon dioxide and methane into the environment. And on a global scale, the rice industry is a massive polluter, with greenhouse gas emissions on par with the aviation industry.


Even a reduction of 10% on emissions in the rice industry would be equivalent to removing 10 million vehicles from the road. Greenhouse gases trap the sun’s heat in Earth’s atmosphere, which is the last thing we want on our ever-sweltering planet. The reduction of emissions is thus a crucial component to curb global warming and ease the devastating effects of climate change.


So, why not just turn to the traditional harvest of wild rice?


Well, traditionally grown wild rice has also faced many obstacles over the years and is in no state to deal with large-scale commercial harvesting. Factors including climate change, shoreline development, pollution, motorboats, and lock and dam development have all negatively impacted native rice beds in lakes and wetlands. This has posed challenges to the harvesting practices of Indigenous communities.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Over the past few years, we have been collaborating on the Manoomin Study with the Myera Group, Lakehead University, and several Treaty #3 Indigenous communities. In fact, recently, Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford announced nearly $550 000 of support through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation. The Myera Group, an Indigenous-led company in Manitoba, is the industrial sponsor for this work. They are leading several initiatives focused on food sovereignty and added value products from wild rice.


This research fits into a wider framework of protecting and preserving important Indigenous cultural foods, ensuring greater food sovereignty, and strengthening economies.


It will study the co-culture of fish and wild rice as well as the bioremediation of fish waste products. Bioremediation is when we harness existing natural biological processes to break down contaminants in different environments such as water. Essentially, the project is about finding out how we can raise fish and grow wild rice together and in doing so also treat the fish waste (both solid and liquid) by using it as fertilizer for the rice.


What We Are Doing

To help make it all happen, researchers will study the impact of fish waste on water quality, wild rice paddies, and neighbouring ecosystems. Fish health will be tracked by using minimally invasive methods, like collecting fish mucus, environmental DNA, and RNA. Additionally, community-based water monitoring programs will be developed.


We are also investigating the possibility of reducing water usage in cultivated wild rice. Working out of 15 tubs, scientists are experimenting with two different kinds of wild rice. The plants are grown at varying depths of 30 cm, 20 cm, 15 cm, 10 cm and 5 cm. Additionally, we’re trying out different levels of saturation; some tubs are fully saturated, while others are wetted every other day. The goal is to find the sweet spot where the wild rice plants will happily grow at a certain reduced water depth.


The Manoomin project is a great example of the collaborative nature of the work being conducted at IISD-ELA. A lot of incredible things can happen when you put brilliant and passionate minds together. Not only will this strengthen Indigenous economies, help the environment, and see communities reclaim powers over their food systems, it will also have an impact on the cultural preservation of wild rice.


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