What is an organic farm?
There is now a federal and state rules that govern what "organic" is. But an
organic farm, in my opinion, is one that uses no synthetically compounded
materials. No GMOs are allowed in organic agriculture.
What do organic farmers have against synthetic chemicals?
I think it came out of the 1960s and 1970s. The issue of chemical agriculture
had a great many unknowns about it. I grew up on a farm where we used
herbicides and we used 2,4-D. We used a lot of things that are now banned.
When I began to ask questions about those things, a lot of the information
about the health effects of those materials were not directly available to
farmers. It was a labyrinth. A lot of those products have now been
discontinued because they were deemed unsafe. I felt like the farm was a bit of
a laboratory. . . . I decided, and I think a lot of people at the same time
were deciding, that we needed to look at an agriculture that didn't have those
questions, and begin to re-orient it. . . .
A California organic farmer, Muller talks about long-term costs and doubts
associated with GM food, outlines the problems caused by large industrial
farming, and explains why he believes farmers are on a dangerous treadmill in
embracing biotechnology. (Interview conducted October 2000.)
Do you think the chemical industry has lost trust and credibility? . .
It started with Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, (her book published in
1962 that unmasked some of the dangers of pesticides). A lot of farmers felt
very angry that those issues were out there, and somebody was questioning the
technology. But I think there are substantive questions about pollution and
groundwater, pollution in rivers, things that we are going to have to pay for
as a society in the long term. Somebody's going to have to clean those things
up. . . .
What does "sustainability" mean to you?
Sustainability means looking at a farm and seeing where it'll be in 100 years,
or 500 years. Do we have the foresight to protect the soil resources, the
biological resources in that system, and grow crops as efficiently, or perhaps
more efficiently, than we are right now? . . .
If biotech can reduce herbicide use, etc., doesn't that win a few
It's hard to argue with all the positive stories that are out there, in terms
of how biotechnology may prevent diseases or solve problems that we have in
certain industries. There's a lot of promise there, and I'm not here to cast a
blanket criticism over all that promise. But I do believe that we're going
down a road where perhaps we're not looking at other options that may, in the
long haul, be cheaper, be more sustainable, and may not have some of the
long-term costs and doubts associated with them. . . . Do we really understand
the ramifications of putting BT, for example, in corn?
BT is a product used by organic farmers for pest control.
Basically a tool is being taken and it's being inserted in plants. And you've
done some major changes there. It's not a benign process. You've made a
cornfield into a 24-hour-a-day pesticide factory. In the long haul, it will
create insects that are resistant to BT, because that's what nature does. The
ones that survive will be resistant. It means that then there will have to be
a new technology evolved to deal with the resistant insects. . . .
You have a number of questions. One is, what does that do in the soil? Soil
is a complex system. If you have BT in the roots there, are you killing
microorganisms in the soil that are affected by BT there?
. . . Are you affecting again the biology of that system from bottom to top?
Are you affecting migratory insects that fly through here? . . .
But in cornfields or cotton fields, you would have used chemical pesticides.
So are you talking about the lesser of two evils? . . .
I think organic farmers are beginning to say, "Well, do we evolve as apologists
for a commercial agriculture system, where we keep looking for solutions for
problems we're creating? Or, as organic farmers, do we begin to look at the
fundamental health of the system--that begins in the soil--and all the things
that arise from that? Do we begin to design a system that is perhaps more
sustainable over the long haul?"
You inevitably run into monoculture issues when there is great demand for
Those are large questions that we have. A question that has to be asked is, is
Midwestern agriculture sustainable? Can you grow soybeans and corn, even in
the system they have right now, with biotechnology or with the latest pesticide
out there? Or will we hit a point somewhere down the road where there're going
to be so many problems resulting from that system that we've had, that you're
not going to produce that surplus anyway? I think those are substantive
questions. We always expect technology to bail us out. But we may be, in
fact, evolving a system where at one point there will be no bailout. . . .
Nature is incredibly complex and it's not easy to deny it its due. You can't
keep suppressing aspects of it and feel like you're going to be smarter than it
is. . . . If you deny one aspect of that system, it's going to come back and
extract from you the need to pay it fairly.
So you might get short-term gain, but . . .
I think that's the formative question for Midwestern agriculture. . . . Unless
we begin to look at other options, I see that we're heading down a road that is
a parallel to the pesticide road. And we have a lot of people who have
questioned whether that is an appropriate technology for long-term
sustainability of our agricultural resources.
If a product offers less pesticide use and a longer growing season in the
short term, wouldn't you be tempted to take it?
That's a bit of a trap. . . . You would be tempted to take it. And that's why
a lot of farmers embrace biotechnology. Not all of them, but a lot of farmers
do, because they see it as something that will lower their cost and allow them
to survive. Farmers are on a treadmill. That cotton farmer down there is part
of a system where there's been over-production for years. Prices are low. The
farmer's only response is to grow more, because prices are low, and the only
way he's going to see his bottom line come out is if he produces more at that
low cost. But everybody's doing the same thing. So everybody's producing more
and the price goes down further. Then you look for another technology to allow
you to produce more.
What's not being accounted for is the whole environment, from the beneficial
insects to the monarch butterflies that fly through, to the waterways that have
to deal with what runs off his field. . . . We're not reinvesting. We're on a
notion that things in agriculture have to
produced for a lower cost all the time, because there's always perennial
surpluses. It gives us, as a nation, food security.
By and large, for that cotton farmer to survive, he adopts the technology
that's there. He looks to lower his costs, looks for that promise that's given
to him by the developers of that technology. I really think that somewhere
down the road, that cotton farmer's going to say, "Wait a second. The people
making money on my farm are the people who supply me with this BT-engineered
seed . . . the people who market my cotton and aren't concerned with whether
it's GMO or not."
There are people all in that system making money, but the farmer isn't. If you
look at how many farm families have been driven from agriculture over the past
30, 40, 50 years, it's incredible. Farmers aren't making a living.
Is there anger because the BT crops might blunt a tool that you use?
I think with time, resistance happens. Pesticides are a great example. The
insects that survive will be the ones that are resistant to the pesticide. So
you look for stronger pesticides all the time to introduce. It's what's called
a pesticide treadmill. If insects develop that BT resistance, over the long
haul, it will take a tool away from organic farmers. We won't have a tool to
use that's very effective and very non-toxic. And in a sense, the companies
that developed those products--the BT corn and the BT cotton--will be taking
all the profits and all the benefits of that, and they're putting that in their
pocket right now. It's a very short-term notion of how you capture
profitability in the system. . . .
We've been manipulating genomes for a long time. . . . Crossbreeding is
slow. What would be wrong about doing it quickly?
I can't speak for all organic farmers. I can speak for myself. And I know
that when you begin to take things out of the complex system that they're grown
in, or that they live in, and you begin to isolate aspects of it and focus on
just one aspect of it, you begin to oftentimes disregard other aspects of its
relationship in that system. Traditional breeding is laborious, but you can
gain a lot of that information from that process. . . .
I don't know enough to say whether working within a gene species is right or
wrong. . . . There are incredible complex interactions in any crop that you
grow, and it's not just weather. It's soil microorganisms. It's cultivation
techniques. . . . All of those things are related in a system. If they're
going to tweak genes, they're going to need to reinsert that into the system
and see how it reacts. . . .
In the developing world, they're upset about anti-GM forces, because a
choice might be taken away from them.
I certainly think that developing countries should have access to any
technologies that we have here. This horse of genetic modification is
galloping out of the barn and is far down the road here in this country. And
they shouldn't be denied access to that technology. The reasons for poverty
are complex. If we continue to extract resources from the developing
countries, which are sending their best food down the road to developed
countries . . . there's certainly a problem there. That's a complex part of
I do know, though, that farmers in those countries also have the same situation
as farmers here. If they're not paid fairly, they're going to be poor. We
tend to think that technology rains down benefits from the top down. To make a
sustainable agriculture system, it's really built from the bottom up. Those
farmers there need to be paid fairly for what they're producing. If they're
paid fairly, then they have the means to invest in the technologies and invest
in the things that will build their soil and make their agriculture healthier.
. . .
Would you like to see all farming organic, or just organic as part of the
In an ideal system, I'd like to see a sustainable agriculture for all people
where people are fed, and fed good food. That may take a range of technologies.
I can't say exactly what that mix of technologies would be. I would like to
see more organic farms, because organic farming, at this point, approaches the
issue of sustainability in a far more positive light and a far more intelligent
light than does most commercial agriculture.
Given biotech's glamour, what would be an incentive for more organic
The marketplace may be an incentive. I think if consumers demand that their
food is non-GMO, and if organic food is the only non-GMO food out there that
they know does not have any genetically modified organisms, then that may be
one aspect. . . .
Is it true that more land is needed for organic farming? Does intensive
agriculture allow more wilderness land?
I don't agree with that one at all. I think on our small farm here we grow,
again, as much or more probably per acre than most farms do.
. . . I think there's a mythology about organic agriculture, that if you went
to organic agriculture, a third of the population would starve. Yields can be
as high. Again, we're not investing in the technologies that help determine
some of these questions. How do we harvest nitrogen from the air efficiently?
How do we create integrated systems? How do we make soil conservation and the
other corollary issues of agriculture as important? . . . I think organic
agriculture perhaps provides a good many insights into how to deal with those
problems. . . .
A lot of the arguments are disingenuous. Farmers here are producing a
tremendous amount. Farmers are receiving low prices. They have to disregard
the ecology of the larger agricultural picture, because they don't have the
money to reinvest there. Society deems that that's not a big issue. You can
look at one aspect and say, "Yield is the only thing that we need to drive
toward. We need to drive toward higher yields all the time." But I think that
we actually need to drive toward a healthier ecology of agriculture all the
time. . . .
So how do I address Norman Borlaug when he says, "Organic farmers would take
more wilderness area?" I think that he's disregarding all these other issues
perhaps that are related, and saying that yield is the only thing that we need
to strive for.
Does the American consumer care more about cheap food, or about sustainable
I'm afraid the American consumer probably cares more for cheap food at this
point. But I think that there are people who care about the ecology. Our
consumers buy food from us because they are willing to support a farm that is
reinvesting in the farm ecology. There are a great deal of unknowns about
agriculture, and a great deal of mythology. I think consumers are the farmer's
friends. And farmers have, by and large, estranged consumers, because they've
again invested in a technology that has some toxicity to it, where there are
questions about the safety of food and the long-term effects of pesticides. .
Can you make a living out of organic farming?
We do. We've paid for our farm in ten years, farming this farm. That's our
mark of success.