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 V.23 No.6 | February 6 - 12, 2014 

Opinion

The Chile Bowl

Yawn-inducing state rivalry obscures GMO issue

El Rincon Farm in Chimayó, NM
usda.gov
El Rincon Farm in Chimayó, NM

Here was a “news” item that I lost interest in as soon as it happened. And with its ultimate outcome being decided by groups of big, sweaty guys bumping into each other, my attention waned further. Apparently it’s a Super Bowl tradition that city mayors of the opposing teams make a wager, the stakes being something that best represents their own state. This was news to me since organized sport is something that I follow with less interest than I might with, oh, I don’t know, advances in trash compaction.

This is no hipster stance: I’ve always been this way, even back on the playground. While my strapping classmates vigorously argued about batting averages while trading baseball cards, I was trying to find someone with whom to swap Beatles cards. The fact I carried a Beatles lunch boxand obviously a girls’ lunch box (powder blue with sparkles)didn’t help my poor standing among second graders of either sex. I had no idea when the world series was or who was playing, but I could sure tell you when The Dave Clark Five or The Rolling Stones were appearing next on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

I get it. I love and am fiercely proud of New Mexico, too. I prefer my state’s chiles over any other’s, just as I prefer Vermont maple over that of Canada or, God help us, New Hampshire; but a little perspective is in order.

I’m the same now: It’s Sunday and I am tryingas I do annuallyto avoid overhearing who won “the game” for as long as possible because I really don’t give a damn, and there’s little enough room in my brain for new facts as it is.

Among other things, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s bet included Colorado’s “amazing green chile.” Immediately many of my fellow New Mexicans got huffy. The governor, the Department of Agriculture, the Mayor of over-hyped Hatch, N.M. (more on that later) all acted as if they had been told to perform unmentionable acts on their mothers.

I get it. I love and am fiercely proud of New Mexico, too. I prefer my state’s chiles over any other’s, just as I prefer Vermont maple over that of Canada or, God help us, New Hampshire; but a little perspective is in order. Experts claim the archaeological record shows chiles were not present in New Mexico until Spaniards brought seeds with them from Mexico. Other researchers and historiansand people like mefind that a little far-fetched since the Pueblo people had been procuring macaw feathers, copper bells and all manner of other trade goods from Mexican tribes for generations before Coronado wandered in looking for streets made of gold.

And yes, chile is our state vegetable, and we’re well-known for our commercial production, but we only grow about 60,000 tons annually, far less than California or Mexico each produce. The truth is we’re getting our chile-loving asses kicked.

In his day the province of New Mexico stretched from California to Kansas, Colorado to Texas. New Mexicans, both Native and Spanish in this entire region, have been smothering their plates with chile for hundreds of years, borders be damned. Traditionally Spanish-speaking southern Colorado is culturally New Mexico, just as eastern New Mexico is culturally west Texas. Laying aside differences in the making of green sauce, we’re all chile eaters. In fact, what we call “New Mexican” food is closer to Pueblo Indian cookery than anything one may find elsewhere.

While we’re at it, let’s get this right: There is no such thing as “Hatch chile” unless you count the brand-name cannery. Hatch is a place, not a variety of chile like Joe Parker, Big Jim or Española Improved. Hot chile is easy to grow. With the right variety, almost anyone can pull it off. But in the flavor department, small, thick-skinned, thin-fleshed, hard-to-peel native chiles kick the ass of anything Hatch can produce.

And yes, chile is our state vegetable, and we’re well-known for our commercial production, but we only grow about 60,000 tons annually, far less than California or Mexico each produce. The truth is we’re getting our chile-loving asses kicked.

Drought and lack of irrigation water is part of the story, but southern New Mexicowhich produces our largest commercial cropis rife with water and soil-borne diseases that are hurting production. While it’s not as simple as I make it sound, field rotations, cover crops and building organic matter in the soil can help buffer these diseases.

Researchers however are touting genetic engineering, a technological fix for the mess that technology (chemical-based factory farming) created in the first place. Whether you're in favor of it or against it (I’m against it), be aware that no matter what genetic engineering might conceivably accomplish, at its very basis is corporate control and patenting of genes, of humanity’s collective heritage.

Whatever chile’s origin and “ownership,” New Mexico has a vast amount of genetic diversity in those native varieties still extant in traditional communities throughout our state. Those genes are being targeted by high-tech breeders. Fair enough, seeds have always been freely traded and crossbred, but what will the traditional farmerthe very farmer who is suffering least from agribusiness-enabled crop diseaseget out of it? Nothing. The genes of the crop they’ve nurtured for generations will become someone else’s moneymaking intellectual property. I’m just scratching the surface of this issue, but for my money, it’s a hell of a lot bigger problem than a few Coloradan chile farmers.

 

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