The distinct flavor of chili peppers from the US state of New Mexico has been adopted by palates as far away as South Korea. However, some are worried about the future of the crop. Labor costs, relentless plant diseases and competition from cheap imports have combined to put the chili industry in a steep decline.
Scientists at New Mexico State University (NMSU) are helping through a series of efforts aimed at unlocking the genetic mysteries of red and green chilis, but that has some pepper purists fired up.
The thought of genetically engineering chili has galvanized a group of seed conservationists and others who are sympathetic to the national protests targeting corporate greed and economic inequality. Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, however, Occupy Green/Red Chili is on a simple, focused mission: to protect New Mexico’s chili seeds.
“Everyone cares about this -because in New Mexico chili isn’t just a food, it’s your culture,” said Jessica Farrell, a student who is participating in the movement.
The group is concerned that if scientists develop a genetically engineered pepper to boost the industry, small growers could face patent lawsuits if their crops become cross-contaminated by the new seeds. They are also worried about a lack of labeling of genetically modified foods and the potential for New Mexico’s traditional varieties to be forever altered.
“To secure the long-term protection of the farmers and ... consumers in terms of culture, there is no room for a genetically engineered seed,” Farrell said.
However, some farmers, chili processors and researchers disagree.
Over the past 20 years, New Mexico has seen a 75 percent decline in the number of acres of chili grown. Production per acre has increased by more than two tonnes over the past five years because of breeding and improved growing practices, but the industry is a long way from returning to the glory days when tens of thousands of acres were grown.
Jaye Hawkins, executive director of the New Mexico Chili Association, said the state will be in danger of losing its chili not because of genetic engineering but rather because farmers will simply not be able to grow the crop because of the mounting labor challenges and foreign competition.
Building the perfect pepper plant has been the focus of researchers at NMSU for decades.
Most of the work has been done using traditional plant breeding techniques, but some of the problems have been unsolvable through classic methods, said Paul Bosland, head of the university’s Chili Pepper Institute.
Steve Hanson, an NMSU scientist, said the goal of the work being done in New Mexico is to increase the sustainability of chili and make the growing process more efficient.
“It’s one of these things that seems mysterious and supernatural, but the entire process is modeled after a natural event and it’s not really even specific to plants,” he said, explaining that viruses can infect the human body and insert their own DNA into human cells.
Genetic engineering in plants is based on that same horizontal exchange of genes.
So does the journey of a chili from seed to salsa really matter?
Occupy Green/Red Chili organizers think so. They have been gathering petition signatures and spreading their message on social media sites. On Saturday, they planned to march in Albuquerque, Taos, Santa Fe and Socorro.
“It’s about giving us a choice about what we put in our bodies,” organizer Cynthia McDermand said. “We take pride in our chili.”
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