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Christmas colors fire political protest. December 4, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Red and green are the colors of Christmas. They’re also the colors of chiles*, and folks in New Mexico have gotten all fired up about protecting the purity of their most famous crop. (Hatch, New Mexico is renowned as the “chile capital of the world.”) The result is Occupy Green/Red Chile, a protest movement that is taking to the streets in major New Mexico cities like Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos. But what are they protesting?

Turns out, it’s a topic familiar to all of us who care about plants, agriculture and gardening: genetic engineering. According to Susan Montoya Bryan’s article “Green chile lovers fired up over genetic research,” rising labor costs and pervasive diseases have decimated New Mexico’s chile crop, so that now only 25% of the original tens of thousands of acres are still in production.

One of the New World’s most successful exports, chiles are now grown worldwide, and their presence is so taken for granted in Indian, African and Asian cuisine that it’s easy to forget that they’re a New World crop. And now less pricey chile imports are eating into New Mexico’s chile profits.

New Mexico State University, which has had a Chile Pepper Institute and been researching and breeding chiles for decades (including such popular cultivars as ‘NuMex Big Jim’), has turned its attention to genetic engineering in an attempt to help plants resist diseases, boost productivity, and get the peppers up where they’re easier to harvest mechanically. (If you’ve grown hot peppers yourself, you’ll know all about hunting around under the leaves to find ripe peppers for harvesting or the biggest green poblanos for stuffing. Our friend Ben can’t imagine mechanically harvesting a pepper crop. And imagine the labor costs of hand-picking them.)

Genetic engineering raises red flags for different reasons. Some people simply object to having mouse or pig or whatever genes inserted into their plants, when there hasn’t been enough time to see what the long-term effects will be. Not to mention, Silence Dogood reminds me, the moral chaos into which this will plunge vegetarians. 

Others—including the majority of people concerned about protecting plant diversity—are concerned about interbreeding between vigorous genetically engineered hybrids and heirloom plants which have been cherished, sometimes for centuries, for specific qualities of flavor, texture, color, fragrance, ability to withstand certain climatic conditions and problems, etc. This can happen if insect-pollinated heirloom crops are planted near genetically modified fields, or it can happen across long distances if wind-pollinated heirloom plants (like tomatoes and corn) are grown within gale-force reach of genetically modified plants.

The lessons of history, both ancient and modern, all point to the importance of maintaining diversity in our crops, our animals, ourselves. The Irish Potato Famine might never have happened if every person in Ireland hadn’t been growing a single cultivar (cultivated variety) of potato which happened to be susceptible to the blight. Had the hundreds of varieties of potatoes that exist been grown, doubtless many would have proved blight-resistant, and since it took several years for the blight to become disastrous, seed potatoes from resistant types could have been shared, averting the tragedy. (This also points up the importance of not depending on a single crop, be it potatoes, rice, wheat, corn, soy, or you name it, for a nation’s sustenance.)

On a less extreme scale, last year’s canned pumpkin shortage was caused by a crop failure of Libby’s carefully selected and exclusively grown ‘Dickinson’ winter squash cultivar, the source of their canned pumpkin. While our friend Ben ventures to guess that nobody’s going to die from lack of canned pumpkin, unlike the millions of Irish who died in the Potato Famine and millions more who were uprooted and forced to leave friends and family for new lives in new lands, the cause is the same: lack of crop diveristy.

Living in litigious times as we do, crop contamination and reducing diversity aren’t the only objections to growing genetically modified crops, a lesson Monsanto has taught us all so well. University researchers work hard to benefit their states’ farmers, usually drawing no profit beyond their modest salaries. But then agribusiness monsters like Monsanto enter the game, patenting genetically modified crops and forcing growers to purchase their overpriced seed every year if they want to grow the new supercrops.

On the surface, this seems like good old capitalism at work. Nobody has to buy Monsanto seed, after all, do they? And if they choose not to, and to keep on growing the varieties they prefer and saving their own seed for future crops, that’s a free-market choice, isn’t it? Maybe their harvest and profits will be lower, but that’s their decision.

Except it isn’t, at least according to Monsanto. If Monsanto’s modified genes find their way through pollination into somebody’s heirloom crop, Monsanto sends its dogs after them and sues them out of business, even though the farmers are minding their own business and not only have done nothing to incorporate Monsanto’s genes but are horrified by their line’s corruption. Monsanto has shown itself ruthless and successful, time after time after time. No wonder the Occupy Green/Red Chile folks fear that the university’s work will, rather than helping New Mexico farmers, drive them all out of business.

Our friend Ben completely sympathizes with the concerns of Occupy Green/Red Chile, which I feel are totally legitimate. And with a Master’s degree in horticulture, having worked alongside the dedicated professors and researchers trying to help farmers, orchardists and gardeners, I really do appreciate their efforts.

It’s the mindless, heedless greed of corporations like Monsanto that make my hackles rise.  As long as their quarterly report looks good, they don’t give a damn if they destroy the world, even in the next quarter, much less the next generation. If I had my way, every Monsanto executive would be flipping burgers at McDonald’s for their day job, then heading off to work as Wal*Mart greeters for their second job. Perhaps in their abundant spare time they might consider the evil they’ve done and are still doing, not just here but worldwide. “The evil that men do lives after them” was never, ever so apt.

* “Chile” is the correct way to refer to the fruits of the hot pepper plant in the Americas; “chilli” is typically preferred in Britain and the East. “Chili” is the famous soup or stew made with chiles.