Now that New Mexico State University owns a patent for genetically modified chile, the debate over genetically modified organisms is heating up.
NMSU received $1 million from the state Legislature in between 2008 and 2012 to experiment with modifying chile through biochemical and genetic research.
“It’s just research in basic biochemistry,” says Champa Sengupta-Gopalan who works on the project at NMSU. “We’re looking at how we can protect chile plants, how we can increase nutrition properties, characterizing genes and what makes these plants resilient.”
According to Sengupta-Gopalan, the research at NMSU has developed an improved plant. Genetic modifications produce larger plants that are more resistant to pesticides, herbicides and extreme temperatures.
However, some groups are against the new plant. UNM students are volunteering with the Save New Mexico Seeds, a coalition of farmers, citizens and organizations concerned about the introduction of genetically engineered chile to New Mexico.
Save New Mexico Seeds is attempting to shut down the market for genetically modified chile, which they say could harm the local crop said William Thomson, co-president of the group.
“The farmer is liable to lawsuit from the person who owns the patent for the genetically engineered crop and it also destroys the heritage breed that has been bred over a long period of time,” Thomson said.
The introduction of genetically modified chile into the market would require New Mexican chile be certified by NMSU, the patent holder of the new chile. The issue of pollination and patents could create several problems for small growers in the state, according to Thomson.
The group is working on a petition to deliver to local businesses to demonstrate that consumers want to keep chile on the market in New Mexico unmodified. Thomson said that the group has collected about 2000 signatures so far.
The signatures are collected on individual cards that will then be taken to businesses that sell chile. The card reads, “As a consumer of your chile products, I am against the development of genetically engineered (GE) chile.” It also reads, “GE chile could contaminate our native and modern chile varieties that are loved by locals and tourists.”
Vendors who agree not to sell the chile will be given a decal as “a symbolic way that businesses can show they don’t want genetically modified chile,” Thomson said.
Thomson said that consumers do not seem to want modified chile, citing an ongoing KOAT 7 poll in which 83 percent of people said they would not eat it.
“Genetic chile talks about the cultural imperialism of a company coming in and patenting a variety of chile and is sort of threatening New Mexican heritage,” Thomson said.
Thomson said the goal is to stop funding from the state legislature supporting the research of modified chile.
“We really think the community is behind us, and the other goal is just education about what’s going on with chile, but more generally what is going on with genetically engineered crops and the industrial food system,” Thomson said.