On a recent fall morning, Clayton Brascoupe was out checking his chile fields near Tesuque. He'd already harvested his green chiles, which have been roasted and put away for the winter. The fruits still hanging on the plants will be made into red chile powder or left out for seed.
"The older variety I have comes out more with a rust-looking color—if I were to compare, say, some of the chiles that are coming out of Hatch or Las Cruces, you'd be able to tell the difference with this variety and the variety they grow down there," he says. "There is a different color, a different taste, a different texture."
This time of year, the state is nothing short of chile crazed. The smell of roasting chile permeates grocery store parking lots and wafts through neighborhoods. After peeling pounds and pounds of the spicy varieties, people all across the state are carefully avoiding touching their eyes—and freezers everywhere are stuffed with gallon bags of chile.
Yet New Mexico's relationship with chile is felt strongly all year round—the state even has "Red or Green?" as its official state question.
"With chiles, some of the pueblo communities have old varieties they've been growing for generations," Brascoupe, of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, says. "Realize that chiles migrated up here with the Indians out of Mexico—but they've been adapted and grown for probably 400 to 500 years in this area." Native communities, he says, treat chiles as a traditional crop.
But while the cultural importance of chile remains unshaken, the actual crop has seen better days. Between the shaky agricultural market and the influx of various diseases, commercial chile farmers say they are struggling to survive.
Scientists believe genetically modified chile seeds could be the answer to the crop's woes. But farmers like Brascoupe fear the changes could affect traditional communities, family farms and the future of the chile itself.
In fact, two years ago, the New Mexico Acequia Association and the Traditional Native American Farmers Association drafted "A Declaration of Seed Sovereignty: A living document for New Mexico."
Based on that document, in 2007, the Legislature passed Senate Joint Memorial 38, which recognizes the significance of native seeds to both cultural heritage and food security in the state. In it, the state agrees to support the New Mexico Food & Seed Sovereignty Alliance to prevent the genetic contamination of seeds, strengthen small-scale agriculture and increase the cultivation of native crops within communities. During that same time, Brascoupe says, a number of pueblo communities drafted similar resolutions.
"Our basic stance is that we're opposed to genetic engineering because there is potential for contamination with our traditional or heirloom crops," he says. "Once those things have been contaminated, there is really no way of un-contaminating them that we're aware of."
Nonetheless, a year later, the Legislature funded research to study the feasibility of developing genetically engineered chile seeds. These seemingly conflicted actions acknowledge the stark reality of the state's chile industry: It's in trouble. The question remains whether science is its best hope for the future.
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."
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."
Brueggen doesn't know offhand if there are other genetically engineered crops grown in New Mexico, but says the development of genetically engineered crops is directly dependent on whether the benefit the producers receives is adequate for the cost of using the seed.
"It is very much an economic issue, but they're also having to deal with public sentiment at the same time," he says. "Is either side right? I don't know. You can always raise a question mark, you can always throw up a flag." He pauses, then explains that while it may sometimes come with risk, technology has always helped farmers in the past:
"I guess I grew up on a farm, so I'm probably not as afraid of some things as some other people are."
For others, however, the risks associated with genetic engineering are not worth the potential benefits.
"I'm an activist," Allen Richardson says, "but I'm also representing myself as a consumer who would never in a million years eat genetically engineered chile."
Richardson worked on the White Earth Land Recovery Project's wild rice campaign, under the leadership of Native American activist and author Winona LaDuke. He explains that when the Ojibwa, who consider wild rice to be their cultural property and a gift from God, learned that researchers at the University of Minnesota planned to genetically engineer wild rice, they opposed the project. As an advocate and lobbyist, Richardson worked successfully toward passage of a state bill that prevents wild rice from being genetically engineered.
At about the time Richardson began working on the campaign—which had previously garnered little attention from state lawmakers—a case of contamination in the white rice crop came to light.
The case was written about in the journal Nature in January 2007. According to that story, the director of the Louisiana State University AgCenter's Rice Research Station, Steve Linscombe, grew a few lines of transgenic rice in field trials between 2001 and 2003.
"He also knows that one of those lines, LLRICE601, was grown on less than one acre," the story continues. "What he is not clear on is how the line then wended its way into the food supply. That little mystery is now the subject of an official investigation and a class-action lawsuit."
At the time the escape was announced, in August 2006, the USDA had not approved the rice for human consumption; but on Nov. 24, the agency deregulated the crop and allowed it to be grown without a permit. Japan declared a ban on imports of all US-grown long-grain rice and the European Union began requiring US imports be tested and certified. According to the Nature story, the creator of the strain—Bayer CropScience—blamed the farmers and an "act of God" for the contamination of the rice.
"The way it now stands, people have to admit open-air experiments are not containable," Richardson, who is currently working for Sustain Taos, says. "Genetic engineers cannot even contain the experiments—so if something gets commercialized, it's also going to get everywhere."
Richardson hopes New Mexico's chile farmers will put themselves in the shoes of rice farmers whose crops were contaminated; they were unable to sell their products and suffered millions of dollars in losses, he says. "The company that was responsible calls it an act of God," he says, "and by denying any responsibility, the financial burden for that accident is put onto farmers."
He criticizes the USDA's role in the white rice issue, as well: "When something like this happens, the USDA generally waves their magic wand and makes [the new crop] legal. When the gene escapes from an experimental test plot and a law is broken, the USDA will deregulate it almost instantly and say it is safe," he says. "That means there really are no repercussions for someone who is going to operate a leaky experimental test plot—it's sort of a license to contaminate."
Miguel Santistevan is still disappointed the state Legislature allocated funding for the genetic engineering of chile only a year after passing a memorial in support of protecting traditional crops.
"It just goes to show how the state governmental process works and doesn't work," he says—but it also demonstrates that traditional farmers and citizens need to become more involved in the process, working together and also educating policy makers.
Having grown up in Taos, Santistevan is currently a PhD student in sustainability studies in the biology department at the University of New Mexico. Thinking about the role of chile in New Mexico, he looks to the past—how people brought chile from Central Mexico and up the Rio Grande to northern New Mexico, how the chile was adapted to this climate and how communities have come to associate themselves with the different varieties. But when it comes to genetic engineering and agricultural systems, he also looks to the future.
"If we're really going to address the challenges of climate change, I am absolutely convinced and firm on the fact that we need open-pollinated varieties of crops that have the capability to adapt," he says, pointing to changes already occurring within the region's climate. "We're also going to have to get more intimately involved with our agricultural systems," he says. "We're going to have to revamp our whole economy, our whole way of looking at what our role is in nature, what are relationship is to food and the food system at large, if we're truly going to survive."
The current system of agriculture in the US relies heavily on fossil fuels, not only for the use of machinery, storage and transportation of food, but also for vast applications of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
"If we're really going to take this civilization another 100 years, then we're really going to have to get busy on those issues because industry isn't going to do it and technology can't do it. The technology uses too much water, too much fuel, too many natural resources and too many chemicals," he says. "It can't be sustained—whether it's conventional agricultural or genetic engineering, it can't be sustained."
Instead, Santistevan believes policy makers should help farmers move away from unsustainable industrial practices and focus on local markets. "The time is ripe for that because there is more of a demand than a supply of organic food, local food, fresh food, fair food," he says. "So any farmer who can figure out how to make that transition is going to make more money in the long run. We need to work with policy makers to create a policy that is going to support these farmers in this transition, so they don't lose a penny of profit."
In his own research, Santistevan hopes to help farmers understand the importance of biological diversity and also support them during times of transition. One idea Santistevan and his colleagues are working on would involve helping farmers partner with one another. He cites an example: Three farmers, one growing chile, another onions and a third honeydew melon could each year decide to switch lands, switch strategies, trade equipment and move their crops around. That way, farmers could stay a step ahead of the diseases and pests that flourish when one crop is grown repeatedly on the same plot of land.
Genetic engineering isn't the answer, he says, any more than the repeated applications of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have been. "You're not going to undo 3 billion years of evolution and think you're going to create something that is going to fool a virus?" he says. "Viruses are always going to be one step ahead of us, if not 100 steps ahead of us."
But most of all, he says, the issue comes down to a few basic questions: What is our relationship to this earth, as individuals, as communities and as society at large? And what, he asks, is our relationship to food?
"Are we going to turn that all over to mechanization, industry, factories and technology, or are we going to take this opportunity to heal the earth through sane agriculture?"
In northern New Mexico, he says, there is a saying at planting time.
"When we plant, we plant tree seeds: Para yo, para vos y para los animalitos de Dios," he says. "For me, for all of us and for all the animals of God.
And that is the perspective we need to take: How are we going to create an agriculture that is going to take care of me, take care of all of us and all of the animals of God?" SFR