The challenges facing the chile industry run the gamut. Researchers and growers are already testing mechanical harvesters as the result of labor shortages, according to Jaye Hawkins of the New Mexico Chile Association. “There simply aren’t enough workers to pick the chile,” she says. “A lot of that is due to the immigration problems we have right now—we just can’t get the workers, and the workers we can get would rather do construction or some other type of work.”
Beyond that, chile fields are suffering from disease and insect infestations that are proving beyond the deployment of the agricultural practices—including chemical herbicides, pesticides and fungicides—growers have used for decades.
“You take a number of those things and place all the challenges together and it creates kind of a—not a hostile environment for the industry but certainly not a very profitable environment,” Hawkins says. “Last year, the 2007 chile season, we were down to 11,000 acres in the state—which isn’t very many. In the ’90s, there were considerably more [acres] than that.”
That’s why, last year, the state Legislature allocated $250,000 to researchers at New Mexico State University to study mechanized harvesters as well as the feasibility of developing genetically engineered chiles.
With genetic-engineering technology, scientists can move a gene from one organism into another completely different organism. They do this in order to infuse crops with traits they might not otherwise have; for instance, corn has been engineered to include the gene from a bacteria that is toxic to insects.
In southern New Mexico, a handful of problems are currently affecting chile growers, according to Dr. Stephen Hanson, an assistant professor in New Mexico State University’s Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science.
These problems include beet curly top virus and a chile root rot caused by a soil-borne organism called Phytophthora. There are also little worms in the soil called nematodes that attack the chile roots. Until recently, Hanson explains, nematodes were kept under control through the use of the chemical methyl bromide—farmers fumigated their fields with the powerful insecticide in order to essentially sterilize the soil.
But the US Environmental Protection Agency withdrew that chemical from use, citing its impact on the ozone layer. With that tool no longer available, growers are at a loss to protect their crops from the worms.
If all that isn’t enough, within the past couple of years, Hanson’s lab identified two new diseases growers are facing in the fields. “They’ve known they had a problem, but they weren’t sure what it was or why it was happening—and while we haven’t solved the problem yet, we’ve been able to identify the pathogen causing the problem.” He goes on to describe the disease: “The really interesting one this year is a new bacterial disease on chile that causes them not to set fruit,” Hanson says. “They end up growing really large flower buds, but you can imagine it’s a little disturbing for a grower to walk out in the field and see big plants with huge buds on them and no chiles on them.”
Before stepping foot in the lab to find solutions, engineering researchers must delve first into the natural world, Hanson says, seeking out wild plants untainted by human domestication. “Wild plants are usually very, very hardy, and they don’t have many disease problems,” he says. “As crops were domesticated and bred to produce high yields and things like that, they’ve lost a lot of their natural vigor. And the way we’ve lost that vigor is as we’ve ‘improved’ crops, we’ve ended up losing a lot of disease-resistance genes.”
Within the wild varieties—the ancestors of our crop plants—genes exist that can control the diseases that are impacting farmers today. They have been lost from the gene pools of the domesticated crops, Hanson says, but with a little work, scientists may be able to change that fact.
“So, we’re going back to look at wild relatives and look at disease-resistance genes, or even just [gene] activity,” he says. “If we identify these, we can introduce these into conventional breeding programs and use that to try and combat some of these diseases.” Another possibility, Hanson says, is if researchers can identify the specific genes in other crops, they may be able to clone the genes, then engineer them back into the gene pool.
And while his lab works on a number of different projects, all the engineering-related research projects share a common theme: “We look at problems that have a serious impact on growers, and the problems we look at are not able to be controlled through conventional practices,” he says. Either there are not good resistance genes in the chile gene pool—or growers are unable to continue using a previously successful chemical control. “For things like that,” Hanson says, “we’re exploring to see if genetic engineering could be a potential solution.”
He acknowledges there are opponents to his work—and wishes he were better at allaying the fears people have concerning genetic engineering. “I think people that are strongly opposed don’t always understand what genetic engineering is, and the benefits,” he says. “But my job is not to convince everybody that we need to do it. My job is to try and educate people so they can make a well-informed choice.”