Who Should Pay the Cost if Heirloom Chiles are Genetically Contaminated in the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area?

Gary Paul Nabhan

The Upper Rio Grande—from Isleta and Albuquerque to Chimayo and Taos—harbors more heirloom chile pepper varieties in its traditional fields than does all the rest of the United States. Chilehead Dave DeWitt once tallied sixteen distinct New Mexican pepper “landraces” or native heirloom varieties still available in the watershed, but noted that “some seeds you receive may be unintentionally contaminated.” That contamination, intentional or not, is the rub. The spice rub.

What DeWitt meant was “genetic contamination” resulting from the naturally occurring cross-pollination of pepper plants growing near one another. If the same honeybees or sweat bees move pollen from one kind of pepper plant in a field to another kind in a nearby field, they may be hybridized or contaminated so that there seeds are no longer 100 percent to their variety.

Over a quarter century ago, one of the most prominent ecological genetics experts in the country, Steven Tanksley, demonstrated the risk of such out-crossing or contamination in chile peppers was far higher than earlier studies had suggested. In his experimental plantings of two varieties in Las Cruces, he detected natural cross-pollination rates up to 42 percent—far higher than the rates of 9 to 30% that earlier but cruder studies had projected.

More recently, New Mexico State University studies of heirloom chiles sampled from traditional fields all over the Southwest suggest that well over one in ten of their samples were already contaminated with modern, hybrid varieties of one kind or another. Chile farmers in NM have repeatedly noticed that if their neighbors have grown another kind of pepper nearby, their own saved seed sometimes produces plants in the next season that demonstrate that some genetic traits have “spilled over” their property boundaries.

While natural cross-pollination or hybridization of food plants has been going on for some four thousand years in the Southwest, its ecological, economic and political context appears to be rapidly changing, causing considerable anxiety among chile growers and their consumers alike. This anxiety has recently increased as NM’s citizens and chile growers have learned that a) NM State University scientists are involved in the genetic modification of pepper plants; b) genetic-engineering of peppers for disease resistance has already occurred in other parts of the world; and c) when genetically-modified pepper plants are grown together with conventional or traditional chiles, as much as 6 percent of the non-gmo plants showed immediate signs of genetic contamination. While the authors of this 2009 study in the Journal of Plant Biology concluded that only a “limited isolation distance would be sufficient to prevent gene flow from genetically-engineered chiles, more prudent scientists like Dr. Jeff McCormick suggest that heirloom chiles be isolated by at least 600 feet from other peppers, with a plant barrier grown between fields to reduce the risk of contamination.

If this issue were only about the statistical probabilities of cross-pollination in peppers, perhaps it would be debated only by scientists. But this issue appears to be too important and culturally volatile for the policy decisions to be made by scientists alone. Anyone who grows or eats the green or red native New Mexican chiles should become informed about the issue to ensure that their own pepper-growing practices and consumer choices are not contributing to the further contamination of NM’s most celebrated heritage food crop. Here’s why:

1. While NM may harbor more heirloom chile varieties than any other state, many of them are endangered, and now boarded on the Slow Food Ark of Taste to encourage their further protection in the communities of stewards who have cultural, culinary, emotional and even spiritual ties to these peppers and the traditional foods into which they are incorporated.
2. Most of these heirloom chiles—including the most endangered ones—occur in the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, which was set aside “to conserve and protect these traditions,” to support sustainable agriculture, to celebrate local stewardship of heritage food crops, and “to respect traditional values.” All of these goals may be undermined if native New Mexican chiles are contaminated by either the existing hybrid chile cultivars or by peppers currently being genetically-engineered, if they are ever released in the region. In short, if contaminated, they will lose their heritage value, just as the pups of a registered pedigreed dog lose their market value if a mongrel father accidentally mates with the pure-bred mother.
3. Through the far-sighted work of Maria Pilar Campos and her associates at the Native Hispanic Institute, Chimayo chiles have been recognized as a “cultural asset to be preserved as a living treasure.” The NM State Legislature has already passed two joint memorials conferring special heritage value to Chimayo chiles as a state heirloom, and giving Chimayo area farmers the right to trademark or certify their seeds and products to differentiate them from “imposters.” Again, if Chimayo peppers become contaminated by either hybrid or GM chiles, this potentially diminishes their heritage value.

Unfortunately, the US is far behind other nations in protecting such cultural assets and living treasures from contamination and adulteration. In the European Union, where 70 percent of those polled do not want to eat genetically-contaminated foods, legislation was passed as early as 2003 that provided guidelines by which to keep food crops free of genetic contamination. It required isolation distances and buffer zones between crops to function as barriers to accidental pollen transfer. If contamination may potentially occur, the farmers or scientists who have planted GMOs nearby must bear the costs of implementing all these preventative mechanisms. In Canada, the Supreme Court has upheld laws requiring that businesses responsible for polluting the environment or a food crop must pay for the damage done.
And yet, even in the United States, a team of economists from Iowa State University has argued that American laws pertaining to damage done by stray animals set a precedent for the “polluter pays principle” with regard to genetic contamination. The economists not only suggest that owners of patented transgenic plants will be subject to liability suits, but recommend that they should be required to take out insurance even if there is only a low probability of contamination actually occurring.

Although it may sound like science fiction to some, there may come a day when NM’s traditional chile farmers file paternity suits against biotechnology corporations for spoiling the purity of their heirloom seeds. In the meantime, here’s what you can do to keep NM’s unique heirlooms pure and healthy:

4. Don’t grow more than one kind of chile in the same field or garden if you want to save and pass on their seeds. The exception to this rule is if you know how to build isolation tents for each variety.
5. Don’t grow a modern hybrid chile cultivar near the field or garden of a neighbor who exclusively grows native heirlooms.
6. If you have no control over what your neighbors grow, isolate your heirloom chile plots from them by 500 to 600 feet, with hedgerows or other green barriers planted as buffers.
7. Always ask farmers market vendors for the particular name of the heirloom chile they grow, whether the seed has been kept in their family, traded or bought, and whether they know if hybrids have been grown nearby.
8. Support the many NM organizations advancing the concepts of food sovereignty, food security and the precautionary principle with respect to the potential release of genetically-engineered crops.
9. Write NM State University’s Dean of Agriculture, asking to be informed of and engaged in any discussions regarding the future release of transgenic chiles in the state.
10. Ask the Northern Rio Grande Heritage Area board to take a stand on keeping the heirloom or heritage varieties of chiles pure and uncontaminated to maintain their heritage and economic value within the area’s boundaries.

Many New Mexicans share two values: querencia and herencia. Querencia is a rich, multi-dimensional concept, but might be modestly defined as a love for and allegiance to your home place. Herencia is easier to define as heritage or inheritance. Both of these values are embedded in the living legacy of native New Mexican chile pepper heirlooms. Protect them. Savor them. And pass on the seeds of these peppers and cultural values to the next generation, uncontaminated.

Gary Paul Nabhan, PhD., is an Arab-American writer, lecturer, food and farming advocate, rural lifeways folklorist, and conservationist whose work has long been rooted in the US/Mexico borderlands region he affectionately calls “the stinkin’ hot desert.” He recently accepted a tenured professorship as a Research Social Scientist based at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona—his alma mater. For more info: www.garynabhan.com