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This is the blog of Susan Dworkin, author, playwright, environmental advocate, feminist, grandmother, songwriter and audiobook producer, all of whose attempts at retirement have failed.

LOOKING FOR BELTSVILLE

One day long ago, my boss at the United States Department of Agriculture sent me to visit Beltsville, the agricultural experiment station in Maryland. I was a New Yorker, a suburbanite, had never visited a farm, and the only reason I was working at the USDA was (not to sound corny but it’s the truth) because the president of the United States had told us to ask ourselves what we could do for our country.

At Beltsville, I met a man who was inventing a new tomato plant. Its fruits were all the same size and shape and would fit neatly into a certain box that would ship efficiently on a certain truck, allowing the farmer and the box-maker and the truck driver to earn a better living. I met a man who was working with timber-eating gypsy moths in order to extract the pheromone that the female exhudes to attract the male. He was hoping to poison the pheromone and spread it through the forest so the males could come zooming in, thinking “Girls!”, and die upon contact, stopping the moth’s procreation and saving millions of American trees. I met a cow who, I was told, had produced more butterfat in that particular year than any other cow in America. Huge cow. Huge udders. If more cows like this could be bred, the hunger of children would be ameliorated.

The cow turned to look at me, and her purple, grief stricken gaze tore at my heart.

What have you done to that cow, fellas? I asked. How did those tomatoes end up tasting? Did the pheromone poison actually work or is the gypsy moth still eating American forests forty years later? What did you do to that cow?!

That afternoon changed my life. Forever after, “Beltsville” served as my personal metaphor for the mysteries of agricultural technology, at once thrilling, beneficent and terrifying, and as secret and hidden from the thoughtful consumer as the Heinz family recipe for ketchup.

I went across the world looking for those mysteries. I wrote about wheat and coffee, hydroelectric dams and sugar beet plantations, heroic farmers and corrupt officials, greedy farmers and heroic officials. The theme that snakes through all this work – a theme that will appear often on this blog -- is the hunt for a balanced solution to the mysteries of Beltsville.

*How do we find those nuggets of technology that will help to save the hungry world without also destroying some part of it down the line?

*How do we minimize the havoc and the rage caused by progress?

*How does a thoughtful consumer -- like me, like you -- stand guard over the future?
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