l1040621native to this place
The GMO threat to local chile
By Anya Sebastian

Think New Mexico and thoughts of chile can’t be far behind. Red, green or Christmas, it’s definitely part of our way of life. The distinctive smell of chile roasting in the fall, the Wine and Chile Fiesta, green chile stew. . . .  these are just part of the rhythm of life in New Mexico.
If we think about it at all, we take it for granted that our state’s favorite crop is alive and well and appropriately protected for future generations. It’s our state vegetable after all, with a culinary reputation that reaches far beyond state  –  and even national  –  boundaries.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that there are disturbing developments going on behind the scenes, which do not bode well for the long-term future of our beloved chile as we know it.

“The biggest threat comes from agribusiness and the increasingly widespread cultivation of hybrid and genetically modified crops,” explains Charles Martin, an agricultural specialist at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde, an offshoot of NMSU. “Quite apart from any other considerations, quality and flavor become secondary to volume and production. Once corporations get involved, it’s all about the bottom line.”

As Martin goes on to explain, flavor evolves over the years, as a result of the unique combination of soil, climate and local conditions. “The introduction of ‘new’ varieties  – ‘new’ implying ‘improved’ in the public’s mind –  led many farmers to stop saving their own seeds. As a result, seed selecting and seed breeding skills, passed down from generation to generation, were lost. And so, too, was much of the flavor.”

Martin is also concerned about the industry’s primary focus on developing more and more genetically modified foods, chile being just one of them. “We’re losing our connection to the natural world,” he says. “And what about the impact on human health? Reports of allergic reactions, organ damage, anaphylactic shock and other side effects, have just been ignored by the food industry. And when you consider that about a third of all processed foods commonly found in the supermarket contain GMO ingredients – not to mention the high fructose corn syrup, which is in just about everything – what’s really going on here is a large-scale human experiment. And, since these ingredients don’t have to be labeled, most people have no idea how much of them they’re consuming.”

According to Martin, only about 5% of all food produced in the US is now organically grown. “We’re changing the balance of nature,” he says. “What these scientists are doing is identifying and removing certain genes, which disrupts the original gene pool. Then they’re introducing elements into the DNA, like bacteria, viruses and pesticides, which have never been a part of the human food chain before.” Relaxing into a smile, he adds, “You know what GMO means, don’t you? It means God Move Over!

Another challenge faced by local chile growers is, because of NAFTA (The North America Free Trade Agreement) much of the chile sold here now comes from Mexico. “Again, it’s all about the money,” explains Martin. “The imported chile is cheaper, because the land, labor and tax base are all cheaper. Since the local chile industry didn’t lobby for protection, imports rose and production declined. New Mexico domestic chile has decreased by 45% – 75% over the years and only about 5% – 10% of what’s left is now organic.”

The risk of contamination is a serious and ever-increasing problem. Seeds don’t stay in one place; they travel. They can be blown by the wind, transported by bees and birds and even carried by water. In communities of small farms connected by an acequia system, this is of particular concern. Unless an organic farm is more or less isolated from any ‘conventional’ or GMO operation, its purity of production is under constant threat. And, as Martin points out, “The farmer may not know his crops have been contaminated. Unless you make a point of testing every single plant, how would you even know?”

Matt Romero is lucky. The land where he has been growing chemical-free chile for the past ten years, is several miles away from the nearest commercial operation. “It’s pure luck,” he says. “I come from a farming family and grew up partly here in Alcalde, on my grandfather’s farm. It’s definitely a relief not to have to worry about contamination.”

Romero Farms’ chile, which has never been grown on any other parcel of land, is all planted by hand and watered by drip irrigation. The 1500 or so bushels Romero produces each year (some of which he enthusiastically roasts at farmers’ markets) are quickly snatched up by eager buyers. “I grow the same amount as I always have,” he says. “The difference is, I used to have a surplus, but now I sell out.”

The Romero family variety of chile is unique. About 30 years ago, his grandfather crossed the Sandia chile with a local variety, resulting in the unglamorously christened ‘Espanola Improved’. It is from these same seeds that Romero continues to produce the family chile, now re-named ‘Alcalde Improved’.

Romero, who trained and worked as a chef for a number of years before dedicating himself to farming, believes that the future of New Mexico chile lies in the development of strong, local markets. “Varieties you see in grocery stores keep well and store well,” he says. “They travel while they’re still unripe and may be put in ‘ripening rooms’ to ripen overnight. In other words, they’re grown for money, not for flavor. Local produce, on the other hand, is grown for flavor  –  and it’s fresh. The more demand there is for locally grown food, the more will be produced. And the money doesn’t go to support some corporation’s upper management!”

Meanwhile, down in Las Cruces, researchers at NMSU are hard at work developing new and so-called ‘improved’ varieties of GMO chile. Thanks to a state Senate bill sponsored in 2008 by Bernadette Sanchez, a Democratic senator from Albuquerque, NMSU now receives a special donation of $250,000 a year, in order to fund the development of genetically engineered chile.

The race to come up with something ‘new’ is all about the prized patent waiting at the end of the road. With registered rights of ownership, these seeds (which sell for two to three times the price of conventional seeds) become very valuable and highly lucrative property.

The research is also being funded by Syngenta, a global bio-tech company bigger than Monsanto, and corporate offices are currently being built on the college campus itself. If chile works out to their satisfaction, apparently bell peppers are next.

In a different department of NMSU, Miguel Santistevan has been researching chile since 2003. A long time activist, he is passionately opposed to the bio-tech industry’s methods and very concerned about their impact on the balance of nature, as well as on human health.

“Most crops grown in this country are now GMO,” he says. “Monoculture is not natural – nature diversifies – and putting pesticides and bacteria into plant DNA is completely anti-nature. It’s already producing superweeds, that are resistant to pesticides. And it’s having a devastating effect on bees, butterflies, birds and wild life, as well as rivers, waterways and marine life, because of the chemical runoff. Conventional agriculture is bad enough. GMO is even worse. And who would want to eat that stuff anyway?”

As far as chile is concerned, Santistevan says that flavors have been muted by interbreeding and the development of hybrid strains. “Native chile adapts to the local environment,” he says. “A chile from Chimayo is not the same as one from Embudo or Velarde. You can’t improve on the original; you can only dilute it. Hybrids definitely don’t have the ‘umph’ they had before.”

Santistevan believes that cross-pollination poses the biggest threat to the survival of native chile. “Monsanto can go onto private farmland and take samples for testing, to see if any of the plants have been contaminated by their patented seeds and they can then sue the farmer for patent infringement. But independent scientists can’t do any research on genetically modified crops because the big corporations own the patents and refuse to give them access, which is why no peer reviewed studies have ever been published on the health effects of GMO food.”

Asked to evaluate the long term survival prospects of native chile, Santistevan responded wryly, “How would you evaluate the long term survival prospects of the human race?”

Charles Martin is not quite so negative. “I have to remain optimistic,” he says. “The fact is, the global economy is not sustainable and more and more people are becoming aware of that.  Local markets are continuing to grow and multiply and that favors small scale growers, whose produce is more flavorful anyway. There’s definitely much more interest in traditional chile crops, adapted to local conditions and if demand continues to grow, so will the supply.”

So, with chile season happily upon us, it seems that the best way to secure the future of ‘real’ traditional chile is to buy local and to buy lots. Since it freezes well, a few extra bags can be thrown in the freezer, to be held in reserve for mid-winter green chile stew. And it can also be shipped to chile-deprived friends and relatives in other states. It seems that the future of chile lies, literally, in our hands; it’s time to put our money where our mouth is.

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Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.