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Freedom to Farm: Supporters March to Protest Genetic Engineering of New Mexico’s Chile
The chilly weather on Dec. 3rd was overcome by the energy of people marching along the streets of Albuquerque. Bundled up and sporting signs, they marched to call attention to the need to protect NM’s heritage chile from genetic engineering. The event was organized by Occupy Albuquerque, Save NM Seeds and others opposed to what they see as an international conglomerate’s efforts to own and control our world’s food supply. The march started at the downtown Alvarado Transportation Center, traveled down Central, around Civic Plaza, and ended at Roosevelt Park. The marchers were cheered on by a stream of cars, their drivers honking in support and shouting out words of encouragement.
With the upcoming centennial celebration of NM’s statehood, one has to consider an ancient culture moving into the modern day with the ominous threat of extinction to our beloved chile. As incredible as it seems, this is the latest of many threats to the culture and people – whether Anglo, Native American or Hispanic – of our great state.
Genetic engineering (GE) has been heralded as the panacea for the challenges the world’s commercial agricultural enterprises must contend with. Scientists have worked to change the basic structures of what nature (some may say God) created for the people of this planet. In the process they took ownership of this creation, obtaining patents that prohibited others from using or growing the new crops without paying the patent holders. As Orwellian as it sounds, the true threat comes not only from the agribusiness crops aimed at supplanting the foods of the world, but also from the subtleties of laws that allow corporations to seek punitive government action when their laboratory-grown components enter an unsuspecting farmer’s fields. No matter if the wind, birds or bees spread their pollen; these Wall Street corporations are now able to claim patent infringement.
Over 80% of the food products we eat now contain genetically engineered (GE) components. 88% of corn and 94% of soybeans are genetically engineered, as is 90% of cotton. All of these crops have been bred to be resistant to glyphosate, commonly known as Round-Up. When inserted into the DNA of a seed, the new plant – root, stock, leaves, pollen and seed – will contain this technology. A farmer must enter into a contract with a biotech company to plant these seeds. The farmer cannot save the seed his plants produce; he must buy seed (and the company’s pesticide) each year to continue farming. This is the GE farmer’s choice. However, it is not the choice of a neighboring non-GE farmer when the patented seed or pollen lands in his field, and he becomes the target of litigation from the patent-owning company.
So… back to New Mexico’s favorite food: Chile is a staple crop grown and consumed by many New Mexicans who save and replant their seed. These farmers may find their produce contaminated (for lack of a better word) with patented GE traits in the seeds they harvest from their crops. The result: Farmers find themselves subject to litigation and damages for patent infringement. And, worse, there will be almost certain loss of the invaluable and unique traits of the farmer’s own seed, developed through hundreds of years of breeding.
So who is the multiple-armed wizard behind the screen, and, more importantly, what is their motivation? The primary player is the New Mexico Chile Association (NMCA), formerly known as the NM Chile Task Force. In 2006 it changed its name and became a nonprofit membership organization that lobbies for government and public funds, some of which are used to genetically engineer NM chile. The NMCA works with New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) Agricultural Experimental Station and other departments.
NMCA’s president is Gene Baca, of Bueno Foods; its secretary is Lou Biad, of Rezolex, and the treasurer is Dino Cervantes, of Cervantes Enterprises. Bueno Foods is a chile processor and does not farm; Rezolex is one of two companies in the US that extract oleoresin from paprika. Rezolex farms in NM, Texas and Arizona. Cervantes Enterprises has a farming enterprise in southern NM that produces approximately 80% of all the cayenne pepper mash used in Tabasco sauces in the US. 1 All three companies also import chile from outside the US.2
The NMCA contends that a GE chile is necessary for the industry to survive because the North American Free Trade Agreement opened the door for imports of cheaper chile peppers from Mexico. The NMCA responded by exploring ways to market a GE chile to the public. The result was a campaign promoting GE chile as environmentally friendly agriculture. It included a GE market-friendly packaging strategy as the solution to the industry’s woes.3
Who Is Footing the Bill?
In 2008, Senator Bernadette Sanchez introduced a bill (SB 60) in the NM State Legislature that provided to NMSU $250,000 in annual appropriations for development of a mechanical harvester and genetic engineering for chile. This was the first time the public had knowledge of a GE chile. When a concerned citizen emailed Sen. Sanchez asking about this legislation, her response was: “The research is focused on harvesting and not on genetic engineering. I have been informed that the only research conducted is through cross-pollination without introduction of chemicals or un-natural organisms (February 13, 2008).” Other citizens’ questions about GE chile were met by similar responses from NMSU.
So, how is the money being spent? And why the lack of knowledge by the sponsor of the bill and a spokesperson from the institution where research is taking place? How much money has the chile industry received? How long will taxpayers continue to fund this effort? It is murky to say the least. Part of the issue is that the NMCA and NMSU determine how recurring funds get spent.
In 1992, phytophthora (a plant pathogen) became a major concern of the chile industry. This prompted NMSU to secure $250,000 of recurring research funds from the state legislature for the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station. Funds were to conduct research on phytophthora control, development of resistant varieties, a Round-Up resistant chile and mechanical harvesting.4 Initial funding from these funds for GE chile was only 8% of the total. Since genetic engineering is also being used to create virus-resistant crops, it is difficult to know what percent is now going to a GE chile. Total recurring funds spent since 1993 through 2011 for this research is $4.8 million. In 2006, the NMCA lobbied for an additional $7 million in funding on behalf of the chile industry’s efforts. From 2006 to 2010, an additional estimated $3.5 million has gone specifically for development of a GE chile.
The reason the public did not know about the GE chile is because the bills have had innocuous names like NMSU Chile Industry Research, Chile Task Force, Increase Chile Industry Profitability, and Economic Sustainability of NM Chile Industry. The bills were heard in committees not normally designated to hear these type bills such as Corporations, Transportation and Education. The net result: A lack of transparency, with evidence that, outrageously, tobacco settlement funds have been used to fund a GE chile.
In times when many New Mexicans are struggling economically and worrying about how to feed their families, the idea that our limited tax dollars are going to develop a patented seed for a staple crop that will be owned by a state university and international biotech companies is beyond comprehension.5
People are Afraid of Science?
Dr. Stephen Hanson, an assistant professor at NMSU says, “I don’t understand where all the opposition [to genetic engineering] comes from…I think it probably comes back to people’s core beliefs; maybe they don’t understand the technology; they don’t trust it.”6 The people of NM are not afraid of science or technology. Many of us fully understand the consequences of GE crops crossing with native crops such as chile and corn. We also understand what NM has to lose with the introduction of the GE alfalfa, the first perennial GE crop to be deregulated. (Alfalfa is planted in all but one county.)
For the last three years, concerned citizens have worked to pass a bill to protect NM farmers from being sued if they are in possession of an unintended GE product. In 2011, the bill made it to the House floor in record time with a first vote tied 34 to 34. A second vote six days later resulted in a loss of votes (42 to 27) due to heavy lobbying by the NMCA and the biotech companies. If a person does not want GE traits in their seed or GE crops on their land, then why does a company, or in NM’s case, NMSU, have the right to sue a person whose property has been trespassed on by these crops? If there is nothing to be concerned about, then why have the NMCA and the biotech companies lobbied relentlessly against this bill? After all, the people of NM are providing the seeds, funds and use of public institutions for the development of the GE chile for free.
The fear of contamination is real with proven severe economic consequences for US farmers, local and international trade. In2001 and 2003,Bayer’s transgenic Liberty Link rice was planted in field trials on about an acre at Louisiana State University. In August 2006, the US Department of Agriculture found this unregulated rice in the US long-grain rice supply. This impacted an estimated 2.2 million acres for four years, led to an international ban on US rice and over $1 billion in losses for US farmers.
New Mexicans have every right to not trust the impact GE alfalfa will have on NM agriculture, water rights and land ownership if farmers or ranchers decide to plant it. In the Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement for 2010 (downloadable off the web) – a paragraph states:
To accept and continue the obligations of this Monsanto Technology/
Stewardship Agreement on any new land purchased or leased by Grower that has Seed planted on it by a previous owner or possessor of the land; and to notify in writing purchasers or lessees of land owned by Grower that has Seed planted on it that the Monsanto Technology is subject to this Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement and they must have or obtain their own
Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement.”
If a farmer or rancher plants GE alfalfa or any other GE crop, then that land and water rights, effectively have a perpetual lien against them by Monsanto.
The New Mexico Chile Advertising Act
In 2011, the NMCA successfully lobbied to get the NM Chile Advertising Act passed. There was no need for this bill. In 2009, the NM legislators had passed a bill called “Labeling of NM Products,” which provides for branding NM agricultural products based on regional, varietal or specialty labels. So what is the difference between the two? In the NM Chile Advertising Act, it is the NMSU Board of Regents and the “chile industry” that will promulgate the rules of how this bill will be enforced; not the NM Department of Agriculture. So now the same entities that are developing GE chile, growing-out seeds for NMSU, and who will own the patent on this GE chile – will decide what constitutes “New Mexico chile.” This is dangerous.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of laws that prohibit seed saving, passed in other countries. Mexico passed one in 2007 after much lobbying by biotech seed companies. It is now against the law for farmers to exchange seeds unless they are certified or registered with the proper entity. What does this mean for NM farmers? Are we all going to have to register our farms, certify our seeds or be included in some type of database in order to exchange our seeds with our neighbors? Will we be forced to only purchase seed certified by NMSU or the Chile Pepper Institute in order to call it NM chile? This NM Chile Advertising Act will create conflicts and needs to be repealed.
“If You’re Proud of It, Label It.”
At the Albuquerque march, Michael Reed, a farmer and saver/breeder, spoke on behalf of Save NM Seeds, a group dedicated to ensuring a sustainable food future and protecting seeds. “It is about who controls access and choices. Do you want someone sitting in a corporate boardroom deciding what you get to eat and how it’s grown? Because that is what’s happening.”
Industry has refused to label foods that contain genetically engineered products. Like Reed stated, “If you are proud of your product, label it.” President Obama promised to get labeling for food. To date, this has not happened. Why is labeling required in the EU and not in the US? Syngenta, BASF and Bayer are headquartered in the EU where planting of GE crops is prohibited, but they sell their GE seeds in the US. Do we not have the right to choose what we want to feed our children? Do we not have the right to choose what businesses we want to support? Where is our freedom to farm?
Vote with Your Money and Your Voice
The most powerful act you can do is to vote with your money and your voice. Let businesses, legislators and farmers know what you think. Other actions you can take:
- Change the way you eat. Read labels to make intelligent decisions. If you do not want to eat GE foods, avoid all corn, soy and canola products unless they are labeled organic.
- Support your local farms and insist that they sign the pledge to not plant GE chile, should it ever become available.
- Go to farmers’ markets and/or join a CSA. A CSA is Community Supported Agriculture, where people purchase a share to pay the local farmer for the crops grown that year.
- Get to know your local farmers, ask how they grow their crops and where they get their seed, and let them know why you’re asking. Better still;
- Become a farmer (even a backyard farmer) and grow your own, even if it is just herbs and flowers.
- Learn to save seed.
- Educate yourselves. Do research.
1 Interim Economic and Rural Development Committee, September 2010.
2 Robinson-Avila, “Imports Scorch New Mexico Chile Producers, NM Business Weekly, September 18, 2009; “ Despite red-letter year, domestic chili pepper growers worry about foreign imports” Associated Press, August 13, 2006.
3 NM Chile Task Force, Report 11 (2002).
4February 2009 // Volume 47 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB4
Improving the Chile Industry of New Mexico Through Industry, Agriculture Experiment Station, and Cooperative Extension Service Collaboration: A Case Study
5 NMSU officials stated in Interim Economic and Rural Development Committee, September 2010.
6 Paskus, Laura. Red, Green or GMO? Will the Future of New Mexico’s Chile Include Genetic Engineering, Santa Fe Reporter, 10/15/08.
About the author
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