Thursday, April 18, 2013

Genetic Chile

About a month ago my boyfriend surprised me with a little indoor gardening kit that included seeds from three varieties of peppers. The idea was to sprout them in tiny plastic pots inside a tiny plastic greenhouse, and then once they got big enough they could be planted outside. So this past weekend, partially in celebration of finishing my thesis and thus actually having time to do fun things, and partially in celebration of the fact that the weather has finally turned Spring-like, I decided to transfer the seedlings into big planters and move them out of the house and onto the back porch. Here they are!

GM peppers grown lovingly in flower pots with organic soil? Possibly. 

Each little seedling is about an inch and a half high and has two tiny leaves. I may have moved them out of their little plastic greenhouse a little prematurely—there was plenty of room in there for them to grow some more—but I was worried their roots would get cramped in the tiny pot, and that the water drainage situation was insufficient. And I really wanted to set up a planter garden outside. I just hope we don’t get another freakishly cold day!

Anyway, in honor of my pepper plants, I decided to watch Genetic Chile, a documentary directed by Christopher Dudley. This documentary explores the controversy surrounding the genetic modification of the New Mexico chile. In short, biological engineers at New Mexico State University are working on developing a genetically modified version of the New Mexico chile designed to work with certain types of chemicals, similar to the type of genetic modification that Monsanto is known for. The impetus for this, supposedly, is that due to changes in immigration policy there is a shortage of agricultural laborers in parts of New Mexico, and this genetically modified chile will allow farmers to continue producing chiles with less labor. Many researchers, farmers, and consumers in the area are opposed to this because they feel that crops of this genetically modified chile will be bad for the environment  and the economy, and because they feel that genetically modified chiles being grown in the area poses a major genetic contamination risk for currently grown and heirloom varieties of New Mexico chiles being grown in the area, which are not only an important part of New Mexico’s economy, but also an important part of New Mexican cultural identity. With these circumstances as the framework, Dudley uses the New Mexico chile to discuss genetically modified foods and the environmental, economic, an health impacts that they can have. Social and political impacts were touched on slightly as well (as in what it means to have genetic modification and chemicals displace immigrant labor), but not as much as I wish they'd been.

Overall, none of the information given in the documentary about the genetic modification of food was new to me, but I think that for someone who hasn’t read or heard very much about GMOs before, this documentary could serve as a good overview. That being said, I appreciated the way in which one food in particular, in one place in particular, was used as a tool for thinking about broader issues related to GMOs. In that way, in reminded me of Anna Tsing’s “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species.”

This documentary also made me think about the genetics and the politics of my pepper plants sitting outside on my back porch. On one hand, growing them makes me feel like a bit of a urban gardener. I like the idea of being able to grow food for myself, my neighbors, and my friends to eat. It’s not as though I could live off of the food grown in my small garden, but it can supplement the food I buy at the grocery store, and it can keep me connected with an activity that is both enjoyable and in line, I think, with my politics- and health-related food ideology. However, it occurred to me that I actually have no idea whether or not the pepper seeds I planted are genetically modified—they came to me as a thoughtful gift, in packaging covered in beautiful, brightly-colored pictures of peppers. But I didn’t look into what their genetic history was. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was just excited about my urban gardening project. But now that I think about it, it seems quite possible that they are GMOs. They came to me in a cutesy indoor gardening kit purchased in Texas, not directly from a farmer or gardener, not from an organic or heirloom seed distribution company. So the chances are good, right? But I still can’t help but feel that by cultivating the plants and eventually (hopefully) harvesting and eating the peppers, I’m “doing” food activism. But I'm questioning if that's legitimate or not, considering I don't know where these seeds came from or whether or not they're GM. I plan to do some research on my pepper plants’ origins and re-evaluate. But on the other hand, I feel a little resentful of the fact that I might find out something I don't want to be true about my urban gardening project. It'll complicate things. And I don't yet know how I will negotiate the situation if it turns out that my peppers are genetically modified. Does it matter? Can GM-ness be outweighed by they fact that I'm seeing my peppers from seed to fruit? What about the fact that I'm using organic soil and what if I start composting and giving the compost to my plants. Is there a balance that can be struck? I guess I'll have to wait and see. 

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