New Mexican chile probably isn’t a big deal to those of you who don’t or haven’t lived in New Mexico. When I first moved there, I couldn’t understand it. A friend took me to a lovely New Mexican restaurantand once I’d ordered, the waiter asked the most baffling question I’d ever heard: “Red, green, or Christmas?”
See, in New Mexico, pretty much everything that isn’t dessert is served with chile. There’s green chile, which is made of ripe green chiles cooked with spices and maybe a little flour as thickener, and red chile, which is made from dried red chiles (the same species as green, just fully ripened then dried) plumped with water and pureed. Then there’s Christmas, which is of course a mixture of both. You may notice, especially if you’re a Texan, the lack of meat or beans or anything else in this chile sauce. It’s just a sauce they pour over every burrito, enchilada, and fried egg in the state of New Mexico. Now some folks are protesting against the good people at the New Mexico Chile Association and the Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU because part of their funding could be used to research genetically modifying the peppers that define New Mexican cuisine. The Facebook page of the protesters (Occupy Green/Red Chile) seem to be focusing more on the potential commercial repercussions of GM chile seeds rather than the health risks that some folks allege are posed by GMOs.
I was surprised to see an economic movement attach itself to a culinary cause. I was also a little concerned that the protests might lead to pressure to change the track of some of the research being done at the Chile Pepper Institute. So I sent them an e-mail, and after a few weeks of phone tag (Tip: never try to reach a professor at the end of semester, especially while you’re moving. You’ll each end up with 30 second bursts of time that never seem coincide.) I spoke with Dr. Paul Bosland, the director of the Chile Pepper Institute. I had been rather expecting a grad student or intern to deal with me, honestly, because I’m not a scientist or even a reporter, just a person who cooks pretty well and sometimes writes about it. Dr. Bosland didn’t seem particularly worried about the movement. According to him, the protest’s presence is primarily an Internet phenomenon; they were scheduled to protest on NMSU’s campus the weekend before I spoke with him, but he didn’t notice any protest at all that day. Of course, he gave a very good reason to ignore the protests entirely: there are no GM chiles. It’s actually rather baffling–other nightshades such as potatoes and tomatoes and tobacco take to gene insertion quite nicely, but apparently if you insert a gene into a callus and then try to grow a plant from the callus, it doesn’t work. Obviously the Institute is interested in finding out why this is the case, but a greater part of their focus is on plant breeding.Their research foci include the usual you’d expect to find in plant research: increasing yield, nutrition, and flavor, as well as some (probably obvious) avenues that hadn’t occurred to me. The protesters worry about cross pollination from GM plants reducing genetic variety–that is, contaminating landraces and changing them. The Chile Pepper Institute is worried about non GM plants doing the same thing. “Let’s say you’re a farmer, and you plant a NuMex 6-4 [one of the popular cultivars bred by the Institute] in the same field with, say, an heirloom jalapeño. There’s going to be cross pollination, and the next generation will be changed,” Dr. Bosland explained. So the Chile Pepper Institute cultivates many varieties of chile and saves seeds to preserve their unique genes and characteristics. They also make new ones, and Dr. Bosland discovered that an Assam pepper called Bhut Jolokia is (or was) the hottest chile in the world at 1,001,304 scoville heat units. Mr B. just ordered some seedsfor it, because apparently he wants to eat something that will hurt more than biting a hot poker.
But insane heat levels aside, chiles contain high levels of vitamins C and B6, as well as some vitamin A. According to an older text called Culture, Environment and Food to Prevent Vitamin a Deficiency by Kuhnlein and Pelto (sorry, I haven’t found any more recent studies), in some parts of rural China chile peppers are the primary source of vitamin A. Sounds great, until you realize that one average chile (with a great deal of variation between individuals, obviously) only contains 5-6% of your daily recommended amount of vitamin A. Now try to imagine eating at least 20 entire chile peppers every day. If the levels of the vitamin could be boosted, either by breeding or genetic engineering, a vitamin deficiency that causes a quarter to half a million children to go blind every year could be treated even in areas where medical treatment is of limited availability. It’s things like this that cause me to feel so strongly about the importance of research into improving the nutritional values of food crops by any means possible. Other resources (aside from all the fun links above) The New Mexico Chile Association’s breeding solutions statement, which discusses how the acreage of chile peppers grown in NM have decreased by 75% in the lest 20 years (not due to GM; we’ve discussed that). If you read nothing else, read this. It’s a clear, concise explanation of how research is actually being used to help the chile industry, including small farmers, in New Mexico. The Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU has loads of information for both scientists and the rest of us, as well as seeds for sale and growing tips for an astonishing variety of peppers. They also sell hot sauce, salsa, and BBQ sauce made from the Bhut Jolokia, if you want to try out some crazy hot chile sauce without growing and making it yourself. As a bonus, the profits go towards Chile Pepper Institute research. This article has Dr. Bosland ever so proudly showing off his certificate for measuring the heat of what was the world’s hottest pepper. How cool is he?