Lisa Hamilton on rice’s wild future, ag reporting and photography

In the September 6 issue of California Sunday Magazine, reporter Lisa M. Hamilton writes of her journey into the crocodile- and snake-filled wilds of northeastern Australia with a group of researchers searching for the wild relatives of rice. Their goal: collect these undomesticated strains of rice and then tap their genes to create more resilient rice plants, which might combat pests, diseases, and the ravages of climate change. It’s an important project, considering that billions of people around the world rely on rice for their daily sustenance. FERN’s Kristina Johnson spoke with Hamilton about her interest in plant genetics, the evolution of food and ag journalism, and her role as both writer and photographer.    

How did you first learn about wild rice relatives in Australia?
I first heard about the research that Robert Henry of Queensland University was doing in 2013. He had become a real advocate for trying to get researchers, policymakers and the general public to see the importance of conserving wild relatives, both collecting them in the wild and preserving the landscapes where they grow. I followed Robert’s story for about a year and a half before I finally pitched the piece, because I wanted to make sure that the particular varieties of wild rice he had found actually mattered. But the truth is, when you talk about wild relatives, you don’t know what’s going to matter. We have no idea what our challenges will be in 50 years, so we don’t actually know what we’re preparing for.

How can wild relatives help farmers?
For a long time, people just dismissed these plants as weeds. It’s just recently that people have started valuing wild relatives and the diversity they offer for breeding more resilient plants. Because of climate change, domesticated rice faces all sorts of foes, from salinization to increased temperatures to the pests and diseases that come along with higher temperatures. The point with wild relatives is making sure we don’t lose their potential before we even know what we need. This is especially true in studying rice. Researchers haven’t tapped into the wild varieties much because there’s roughly 100,000 domestic variations. But the challenges of climate change are beyond what most domesticated rice has faced in its lifetime.

What draws you to plant genetics?
Genetics is this whole new relationship we have to plants that in the past five to 10 years has become another plane, another dimension. To be able to look at a plant so closely, on such an intimate level—it’s an unprecedented opportunity to understand and influence plants. But like any technological advance, it deserves scrutiny. We need to consider what our new relationship is to plants. How does the use of genetics change us? How do we keep it in check or balance it with all the other relationships we have to plants through culture or economics, or spirituality? I see the incredible opportunity for us to use genetics to improve crops, but I also want to continue to recognize and explore the mystery of plants that’s very much alive, even in an age when we think we can know everything.

The more you’ve learned in your reporting, do you remain hopeful about the future of agriculture and the food system?
I’m not worried about our ability to produce food. We have a powerful technological capacity to produce more and more food, even in the face of immense climatic challenges ahead. What worries me is that already there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who are hungry. I think the percentage of people who don’t have access to the bounty of food is only going to grow. I don’t have a lot of faith in our human capacity to make sure that everyone gets food. We’re endlessly creative in our approach to improving yields, but it’s just not matched by an endless empathy that would lead us to create food systems to feed everyone. Technology cannot give us empathy or generosity or self-sacrifice.

Why did you choose to narrow your journalistic focus on food and agriculture exclusively?
In college I focused on community development with an emphasis on sustainable agriculture. I had grown up in the suburbs of Boston, but I started hanging out with other students in the farm program at Evergreen State College in Washington. As I began to learn about agriculture, I had this living connection to the world around me that I had always tried to find through environmentalism but never did. I was 18 when I first spoke to a farmer. Ever since then, agriculture and rural communities have been my passion, my link to what matters in life.

How has reporting on food and farming changed since you started?
When I started out as a journalist in the late ’90s, nobody would pay for a story about agriculture unless you were writing for the farm press. So I tried my hand at travel writing, but I was just trying to write travel stories about farming, which didn’t work out too well. So I became a cocktail waitress by night and by day wrote articles about farming for whoever would publish them. I’ve been writing about agriculture for almost 20 years now. It’s thrilling to me that a young journalist today could start a career with that topic in mind, because of the incredible attention the media are giving to growing and eating food.

You are both photographer and writer on most of your stories. How do those two roles influence and inform each other?
When I pick up my camera, I turn off the writer side of my brain, the one that draws conclusions and asks questions. It becomes a purely visual inquiry into the topic. Writing and photography are two completely different actions. It would be like playing hockey and tennis at the same time. But doing them in combination allows me to tell a fuller story. There are a lot of things that I can’t portray in photographs–complex, intellectual ideas, layered conflicts, history. But at the same time, there are a lot of things that I can’t express through words. Photographs allow me to say things about a topic that are beyond explanation.