SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Mention New Mexican cuisine and mouths start watering. Giant breakfast burritos, plates of enchiladas, tacos and even cheeseburgers -- all laced with green chile or drenched in red.
New Mexico's chile peppers have woven their way into the state's cultural identity, and their distinct flavor has been adopted by palates as far away as Korea.
But some are worried about the future of New Mexico's signature crop. Labor costs, relentless plant diseases and competition from cheap imports have combined to put the chile industry in a steep decline.
Scientists at New Mexico State University are helping through a series of efforts aimed at unlocking the genetic mysteries of red and green chile, but that has some pepper purists fired up.
The thought of genetically engineering chile has galvanized a group of seed conservationists and others who are sympathetic to the national protests targeting corporate greed and economic inequality. Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, however, Occupy Green/Red Chile is on a simple, focused mission -- to protect New Mexico's chile seeds.
"Students, teachers, farmers, consumers, mothers and fathers, everyone cares about this because in New Mexico chile isn't just a food, it's your culture," said Jessica Farrell, a University of New Mexico student who is participating in the movement.
The group is concerned that if scientists develop a genetically engineered pepper to boost the industry, small growers could face patent lawsuits if their crops become cross-contaminated by the new seeds. They're also worried about a lack of labeling of genetically modified foods and the potential for New Mexico's traditional varieties to be forever altered.
"To secure the long-term protection of the farmers and the protection of consumers in terms of culture, there is no room for a genetically engineered seed," Farrell said.
This is where some farmers, chile processors and researchers disagree.
Over the last 20 years, New Mexico has seen a 75 percent decline in the number of acres of chile grown. Production per acre has increased by more than 2 tons over the last five years due to breeding and improved growing practices, but the industry is a long way from returning to the glory days when tens of thousands of acres were grown.
Jaye Hawkins, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, said the state will be in danger of losing its chile not because of genetic engineering but rather because farmers will simply not be able to grow the crop due to the mounting labor challenges and foreign competition.
"We're chipping away at the problems, and this is just one alternative," she said of the genetic research.
Building the perfect pepper plant -- one capable of withstanding root-rotting and leaf-wilting diseases, one with more flavor compounds, one that is taller with easily harvested fruit -- has been the focus of researchers at New Mexico State University for decades.
Most of the work has been done using traditional plant breeding techniques, but some of the problems have been unsolvable through classic methods, said Paul Bosland, head of the university's Chile Pepper Institute.
While critics argue that genetically modified foods are unnatural, experts say the world would not have the varieties of chile, wheat, potatoes, corn, rice and other vegetables that it has today if it weren't for the genetic modification that comes naturally from breeding plants with one another.
"It's been 10,000 years for some crops. They don't even remotely resemble their wild species anymore," said Pam Ronald, a plant pathologist from the University of California, Davis, who is known for her work with rice.
Ronald and others say the difference with genetic engineering is it's modern and more precise, and genes from unrelated species can be added to a plant's genome.
"It's a fine line philosophically what people will accept, and there are reasons of course for not wanting a particular type of crop," she said. "But if you think about the great issues of our time -- sustainability, can we grow more food using less land and less water as resources diminish, can we reduce insecticides -- if genetic engineering can enhance the sustainability, then why not use it?"
The situation with chile in New Mexico is not unlike what happened to Hawaii's papaya in the 1990s. There, it took a publicly funded research effort to develop a papaya that was resistant to a disease that was wiping out orchard after orchard.
The effort was a success, and today Hawaii continues to provide most of California's papayas.
In Arizona, genetically engineered cotton has resulted in less insecticide use, and corn growers in the Midwest have realized billions of dollars in economic benefits from engineered corn seed, Ronald said.
Steve Hanson, a scientist at NMSU, said the goal of the work being done in New Mexico is to increase the sustainability of chile and make the growing process more efficient.
"It's one of these things that seems mysterious and supernatural, but the entire process is modeled after a natural event and it's not really even specific to plants," he said, explaining that viruses can infect the human body and insert their own DNA into human cells. Genetic engineering in plants is based on that same horizontal exchange of genes.
So does the journey of a chile pepper from seed to salsa really matter to those who have become addicted to the flavor?
Occupy Green/Red Chile organizers think so. They have been gathering petition signatures and spreading their message on social media sites. On Saturday, they planned to brave the winter weather for marches in Albuquerque, Taos, Santa Fe and Socorro.
"It's about giving us a choice about what we put in our bodies. It's about getting New Mexicans out into the streets," said Cynthia McDermand, one of the organizers. "We take pride in our chile."
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM .
Occupy Green/Red Chile on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/rsUd76
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.