farmDRAWEDthe farmer protection act
Preserving the Flavor and Tradition of our Farms
by Sharon J. Leach

New Mexico locavores admit to something akin to reverence for our native varieties of corn, beans, squash and of course chiles. We love these foods as much for their unique terroir (literally, flavor derived from the soil in which it grows) as for their connection to the farmers who grew it and for the food’s history of cultivation in our region.

Our consumer dollar is one way to ensure the long life and resurgence of these varieties. The success of local farmers’ markets attests to growing value in organic, locally raised food.  However, if we are to become truly conscious foodies and retain our local flavors, we must engage in the less delectable act of lobbying in support of our small farms.

New Mexico chile and alfalfa—staples of our ranching economy—are under threat from genetic modification (GM). While there is some risk to consumers from food crops that have been genetically altered, an urgent concern for all who love local food is the risk to the New Mexico farmer.

In the coming NM legislative session, a bill is being reintroduced that would protect farmers from damage and intrusion by patent-holding seed companies. Supporters of The Farmer Protection Act (FPA) see a looming threat from genetically-modified seeds. Currently, GM chile is not yet in broad use, but if the New Mexico Chile Association has its way, that could change. The Association argues that only by genetically engineering a chile plant to suit the needs of mechanical harvesters can they compete with low-wage farm workers in other countries. Thus, it has successfully lobbied for $500,000 a year since 2006, including funds from the legislature and the state’s Department of Agriculture.

GM alfalfa (resistant to herbicide) was on the market from 2003-2005 and is in our state, despite a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that disallowed the continued sale of this product until it had been fully tested for safety. With the ongoing transport of alfalfa throughout the state, contamination is only a matter of time.

“The question was: How do we protect farmers from being sued by biotechnology companies when patented seed or plant material ends up on local farms against the landowner’s wishes?” explains Isaura Andaluz of the Save New Mexico Seeds Coalition. This was the motivation for the FPA. “It’s a property-rights issue,” she points out, indicating the financial and legal risks for all growers.

Currently, the burden of protecting a crop from being contaminated by patented seeds is on the victim. Farmers who wish to prevent their seeds from becoming cross-pollinated with GM seeds are expected to create buffer zones. Otherwise, they may be sued for stealing seed technology under patent law. Patent laws place all the liability on the small farmer and all the weight of law enforcement on the side of the technology company.

“Buffer zones don’t make sense,” says Estevan Arellano, editor and translator of Ancient Agriculture. Wind drift and pollen exchange is good for genetic diversity and the robustness of seed stock. New Mexico chiles have been adapted by generations of farmers to develop a robust, flavorful and easy-to-process product. “My mother grew chiles all her life and always said you’ve got to exchange chile seeds every five years,” he says, pointing out that it is not the unblemished purity of the heirloom seed that is being threatened but rather it is the practice of seed-saving and the rights of farmers to protect the health of their crops and land.

The FPA aims to prevent local farmers from being liable for accidental contamination, and also protects them from unwarranted entry and searches of their property. The coalition of farmers, ranchers, local food and land rights activists who formed Save New Mexico Seeds want to continue the tradition and rights of all growers to save and replant their seeds and to protect their crop’s value.  As organic farmers have learned, a revelation of GM contamination can mean loss of organic certification (certification is worth up to 40% more in sales price), as well as loss of European markets who place a premium on non-GM products.

“Genetic engineering is a controllable technology that biotech companies refuse to control,” says Andaluz, “There is a way to contain cross-pollination by using male sterile plants and this is already used in hybrid production.”

Proactive counties in California passed laws in recent years to keep GM seeds out.  In response,  preemptive laws are being enacted in 16 states, including two New Mexico neighbors—Arizona and Texas.  These are specially designed to prevent local jurisdictions from regulating seeds, leaving regulation to state agencies tightly wedded to agribusiness cultures.

Farming is challenging enough with natural risks, like pests and unseasonal frosts. Genetic modification of seeds adds a formidable legal and financial risk to farmers, that few are in the position to prevent.

If you are a farmer who saves seed or grows native or organic crop varieties, beware.  If DNA of a patented seed is found to have interbred with your seed, you are liable for patent infringement.
Testimony was presented this fall on the FPA to the state’s interim Rural and Economic Development Committee. According to Senator Bernadette Sanchez, patent attorneys stated that patent law is a matter for federal not state court. However, similar farm bills have been enacted in California, Indiana and the Dakotas without treading on federal jurisdictions and have protected farmers during litigation.  

On a positive note, just this year, a US District Court in New York found that DNA in the form of the breast cancer gene cannot be patented. The judgment lays groundwork for arguing that naturally-occurring genetic material cannot become intellectual property. How this will affect GM genes in crops and crop contamination remains unclear.

January 2011 begins the new state legislative session. The new year is a great time to contact your elected representatives and ask them to support the Farmer Protection Act and mandatory labeling of GM foods. By the time GM seeds are sown, it will be too late.

Sharon Leach is a freelance writer in San Cristobal, New Mexico. She was the publisher and editor of Taos Green Guide: The Water Issue and was recently awarded an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant to provide public education on energy efficiency.

Reach your Senators at (505) 986-4714 or House members at 986-4751.
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