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interview: paul muller

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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?


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.)
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. . . .

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 points?

it's not a benign process.  You've made a cornfield into a 24-hour-a-day pesticide factory.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 certain crops.

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 be 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?

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 bail-out.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 that question.

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 solution?

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 farming?

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 ecology?

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.


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