Hanson also believes engineers and opponents share the common goal of reducing the use in fields of chemicals, particularly those derived from fossil fuels. “So, in a way, I see engineering as really sort of helping the greater cause of reducing our dependence on chemical agriculture and things like that—and I don’t understand where all the opposition [to genetic engineering] comes from,” he says. “I think it probably comes back to people’s core beliefs; maybe they don’t understand the technology; they don’t trust it.”
As for when genetically engineered chiles could make their way onto a plate of rellenos? Not anytime soon, Hanson says. His lab is still identifying which genes might be useful in the future—and has yet to determine how to genetically engineer chiles. “We’re probably talking five to 10 years—and probably closer to 10.”
While genetically engineered chiles remain a thing of the future, there are already genetically engineered crops being tested and grown in New Mexico.
In 2003, the nonprofit Environment California Research & Policy Center released the report, “Raising Risk,” which tallies the number of genetically engineered crops being tested throughout the United States.
The report notes that between 1987 and 2002, the US Department of Agriculture authorized more than 15,000 field releases of genetically engineered organisms on 39,660 field sites spanning more than 480,000 acres across the entire nation.
In New Mexico during that time, there were 25 field test sites; crops included potatoes, corn, soybean, cotton, alfalfa and onion.
As for the USDA’s regulation of genetically modified crops, according to Karen Eggert, spokeswoman for the agency’s animal and plant health inspection service (APHIS), when a researcher, company or university wishes to develop and test a genetically engineered crop, it must apply for a permit from the agency.
The agency’s biotech regulatory services divisions will then issue the permit and possibly require certain conditions be met. “It depends on the crop and the type of trait they’re trying to test for or develop,” Eggert says. “So when it’s pollinating, they might have to bag it, or it would have to be [grown] a certain distance away from other crops and things like that.”
Researchers test the crop over a period of time, she says, until they can prove to the agency it is as safe to grow as traditionally grown crops and that it doesn’t “pose any threat to American agriculture.” At that point, the USDA will move through the process of regulating the crop; public comment is solicited and environmental studies are performed. “Then we would deregulate it,” Eggert says, “and they can go on to apply for commercialization or anything like that.”
(In 2005, the agency’s own investigative branch released an audit concluding that APHIS needs to strengthen its accountability for field tests. It found that during various stages of the field test process, from approval of applications to inspection of fields, weaknesses in both regulation and management controls “increase the risk that regulated genetically engineered organisms will inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation.”)
And once the crop has been commercialized? The agency no longer has any control over the product, Eggert says. Anyone who buys the genetically engineered seeds can plant them. Farmers don’t need to report their use of genetically engineered crops, and food producers are not required to label their products as containing such ingredients.
Here in New Mexico, neither the federal government nor the state tracks the use of genetically engineered crops, making it impossible to track where crops currently in rotation are genetically engineered.
The National Agricultural Statistics Services, a branch of the USDA, does conduct an agricultural survey each June; randomly selected farmers in the US are asked if they planted corn, soybeans or upland cotton seeds that are genetically engineered to resist herbicides, insects or both. All three of these crops are grown in New Mexico but, because the state is not considered a major grower of any of them, the state’s statistics are not broken down individually but, rather, lumped in with other states.
Paging through the data, Jim Brueggen, director of the New Mexico field office for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, points out that the percentages for the states classified as “other” is not that different from the major states. “We’re running at around [the same percentage as] all the other states,” he says. “And that means somewhere around three-fourths of the corn is now biotech…and cotton is up around 90 percent.”
He isn’t surprised the majority of corn and cotton grown in the US is genetically modified. Corn and cotton were engineered before other crops, Brueggen says, not only because they had disease and insect issues, but because farmers were already purchasing hybrid seeds. Farmers already had to shell out cash for seeds, and sellers already had a captive market. “That’s versus a crop like wheat, where most farmers save seed from their own production,” he says. When developing a new line of genetically engineered crops, those investing in the research must consider how they will convince people to buy seeds when they never had to do so in the past.
He adds that new crops have been developed, which were either not marketed or removed from the market altogether. “One other crop from a New Mexico perspective is Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. They actually were marketing that, and it was being planted, but concerns were raised, so they had to pull that one back,” Brueggen says. “I understand it’s going to be coming back on the market in the near future.”