Local farm activist Allen Richardson continues to raise consciousness about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their future effect on New Mexico traditional chile crops.

Now that there is consensus that genetic engineering will inevitably spread into other agricultural arenas, Richardson wants to know the official positions of state experts on the protection of landrace, or indigenous, chiles. Many native varieties of New Mexico chile were developed by generations of Pueblo people and Hispanic colonists through centuries of traditional farming. Each variety is best suited to the particular climate and conditions where it came to be prevalent. Some are better known than others, such as Chimayò, Lemitar, Sand’a, Hatch, and Santa Fe Grande – all with characteristics desired by farmers.

By contrast, GMOs develop by manipulating genetic material in a laboratory. These activities include isolating, copying, and multiplying genes; recombining genes, or DNA, from different species; and transferring genes from one species to another, thus bypassing the reproductive process.

Genetic modification, or transgenesis, is the process whereby an organism is altered in the laboratory, making artificial or modified genetic material that is inserted into the genomes of cells or embryos. The cell or embryo is then regenerated to an organism, out of which a GM line or transgenic line is derived.

In short, a GMO is an organism which has foreign DNA inserted into its genome by means of genetic modification in the laboratory, Richardson explained.

So what’s in store for the chiles of Northern New Mexico?

“Allow me to suggest that the way to answer this question is not to talk about the financial motivation to mechanize chile harvesting (a process that includes engineering chile to withstand applications of herbicide) or to assert that genetic engineering is safe,” said Richardson.

“The question is whether the planting and eating of genetically engineered chile will become de-facto mandatory after genetically engineered chile is introduced.”

State authorities must step up

Richardson believes the safety issue is irrelevant unless a state policy is developed to protect the crops of traditional farmers, who have made it clear they do not wish engineered crops to be forced on them.

“What is the scientifically based policy to prevent the contamination of landrace chile ?” Richardson asks. “Surely whatever policy emerges will consider the cost on biotechnology interests and not on traditional farmers. Wherever GMO is done, does that mean the criminalization of seed saving?”

Richardson said that absence of a policy to protect the landraces sends a message that the issue is not taken seriously.

“Is protecting traditional crops bad for the economy? Must traditional crops be contaminated in order to save the New Mexico chile industry?”

He said if New Mexico State University, New Mexico Department of Agriculture and New Mexico Chile Association all believe that the inevitable contamination resulting from the introduction of engineered chile does not matter, then perhaps they should simply come out and say so.

“If agricultural scientists in New Mexico actually believe it is possible for traditional crops to co-exist uncontaminated alongside engineered crops, would they mind disclosing what data that position is based upon?” Richardson said. “I look forward to a vigorous and transparent public debate on these topics.”

Many subsistence farmers have heirloom varieties they still grow on small family farms or home gardens, because of having helped cultivate chile while growing up in New Mexico or because they prefer to grow their own. Their chile harvest, whether sold at farmer’s markets or road-side stands during season, is an integral part of how they make a living – from Lemitar, near Socorro, to San Lu’s, Colo., and beyond in all directions. The harvest, sale and roasting of fresh green chile , of several varieties, is a way of life for natives, newcomers, and visitors alike at this time of year.

“I myself, would not eat a GMO engineered chile,” insisted Richardson.

The issue of GMOs is not restricted to just keeping heirloom and traditional farmers’ varieties of chile free from contamination. According to Richardson, Roundup Ready Alfalfa has been developed that can be sprayed with Roundup herbicide; it does not die, but all the weeds around it do.

“The problem with Roundup Ready Alfalfa, or any other crop engineered to be herbicide resistant is that weeds develop resistance to it after repeated applications. Then it is necessary to use more and stronger herbicide.”

“Genetic engineers would have you believe that the technology has been proven safe,” Richardson concluded, “But when it comes to health and the environment, the policy has been ‘don’t look and don’t find.'”