Daniel Charles

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.

Primarily responsible for covering farming and the food industry, Charles focuses on the stories of culture, business, and the science behind what arrives on your dinner plate.

This is his second time working for NPR; from 1993 to 1999, Charles was a technology correspondent at NPR. He returned in 2011.

During his time away from NPR, Charles was an independent writer and radio producer and occasionally filled in at NPR on the Science and National desks, and at Weekend Edition. Over the course of his career Charles has reported on software engineers in India, fertilizer use in China, dengue fever in Peru, alternative medicine in Germany, and efforts to turn around a troubled school in Washington, DC.

In 2009-2010, he taught journalism in Ukraine through the Fulbright program. He has been guest researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and a Knight Science Journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From 1990 to 1993, Charles was a U.S. correspondent for New Scientist, a major British science magazine.

The author of two books, Charles wrote Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, The Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare (Ecco, 2005) and Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food (Perseus, 2001) about the making of genetically engineered crops.

Charles graduated magna cum laude from American University with a degree in economics and international affairs. After graduation Charles spent a year studying in Bonn, which was then part of West Germany, through the German Academic Exchange Service.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

John Draper and I are sitting in the cab of a tractor on the research farm he manages for the University of Maryland, alongside the Chesapeake Bay. Behind us, there's a sprayer.

"So, away we go!" Draper says. He pushes a button, and we start to move. A fine mist emerges from nozzles on the arms of the sprayer.

We're spraying glyphosate, killing off this field's soil-saving "cover crop" of rye before planting soybeans.

Farmers have been using this chemical, often under the trade name Roundup, for about four decades now.

The company Calyxt, just outside St. Paul, Minn., wanted to make a new kind of soybean, with oil that's a little healthier — more like olive oil.

As it happens, some wild relatives of soybeans already produce seeds with such "high oleic" oil — high in monounsaturated fat. It's because a few of their genes have particular mutations, making them slightly different from the typical soybeans that farmers grow.

There was a moment, about 20 years ago, when farmers thought that they'd finally defeated weeds forever.

Biotech companies had given them a new weapon: genetically engineered crops that could tolerate doses of the herbicide glyphosate, also known by its trade name, Roundup. Farmers could spray this chemical right over their crops, eliminate the weeds, and the crops were fine.

When NPR interviewed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February about her Green New Deal, she said that her goal was bigger than just passing some new laws. "What I hope we're able to do is rediscover the power of public imagination," she said.

Well, we're unleashing our imagination and exploring a dream, a possible future in which we're bringing global warming to a halt. It's a world in which greenhouse emissions have ended.

Twenty five years ago, William Happer had an encounter with the White House that ended badly.

This week, the governor of Connecticut proposed a statewide tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Several cities have already enacted such soda taxes to raise money and fight obesity. And there's new evidence suggesting that these taxes do work — although sometimes not as well as hoped.

Jane Polston and I are walking over to some greenhouses at the University of Florida, where she's a professor. She wants to show me how viruses infect plants, which has been the focus of her professional life ever since she first learned about plant viruses, back in college.

"I just fell in love," she says.

"With viruses?" I ask.

"Yeah. Isn't that weird? That's what scientists do. They say, 'Oh, my God, I'm in love with this!' "

After years of insisting that it wasn't economically feasible, the world's biggest hog producer has bowed to public pressure and agreed to change the way it handles manure on more than 1,000 farms it controls in the U.S.

Smithfield Foods is promising to cover the manure ponds with a layer of plastic.

The fields and back roads of eastern Arkansas were a crime scene this past summer. State inspectors stopped alongside fields to pick up dying weeds. They tested the liquids in farmers' pesticide sprayers. In many cases, they found evidence that farmers were using a banned pesticide. Dozens of farmers could face thousands of dollars in fines.

The illnesses started appearing in late March. Here and there, across the country, people were checking themselves in to hospitals, sick from toxic E. coli bacteria. At least 200 people got sick. Five of them died.

A tablespoon of soil contains billions of microscopic organisms. Life on Earth, especially the growing of food, depends on these microbes, but scientists don't even have names for most of them, much less a description.

That's changing, slowly, thanks to researchers like Noah Fierer, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Fierer think microbes have lived in obscurity for too long. "They do a lot of important things for us, directly or indirectly, and I hope they get the respect they deserve," he says.

For more than a century, corn has been the most widely planted crop in the country and a symbol of small-town America. Think of the musical Oklahoma, where the corn is as tall as an elephant's eye, or the film Field of Dreams, in which old-time baseball players silently emerge from a field of corn.

Even farmers are partial to corn, says Brent Gloy, who grows some himself, on a farm in Nebraska. (He also graduated from the University of Nebraska. You know, the Cornhuskers.)

Dan Fazio says his phone is "ringing off the hook" these days.

He's executive director of WAFLA, an organization that helps fruit growers in Washington state find workers — and specifically, foreign workers who are allowed to enter the U.S. specifically as seasonal workers on farms.

The dream of reviving Puerto Rico's chocolate tradition took root in Juan Carlos Vizcarrondo's mind years ago.

He's always been obsessed with flowers and trees. As a boy, he planted so much greenery in his mother's backyard, there was hardly room to walk.

But in his thirties, he started planting cocoa trees, with their colorful pods full of magical seeds. "Something told me, just keep planting, because nobody has it! It's so strange, nobody has it!," he recalls.

Nobody loves pesticides, exactly. But one kind of pesticide, called neonicotinoids, is provoking a particularly bitter debate right now between environmentalists and farmers. The chemicals are highly toxic to bees. Some scientists think they are partly to blame for the decline in pollinators.

For the past year, the province of Ontario, in Canada, has responded to the controversy with a novel experiment. Ontario's government is asking farmers to prove that they actually need neonicotinoids, often called neonics. It turns out that "need" is a word that's hard to define.

The nation's first "soda tax" on sugar-sweetened beverages, which went into effect in Berkeley, Calif., last year, appears to be working.

According to a new study, consumption of sugary drinks — at least in some neighborhoods — is down by a whopping 20 percent.

After years of bitter debate and legislative stalemate over the labeling of genetically modified ingredients, a compromise proposal sailed through Congress in breathtaking speed over the past three weeks.

The House of Representative passed the measure on Thursday with solid support from both Democrats and Republicans. It now goes to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign it.

One of the country's leading poultry companies, Perdue Farms, announced plans Monday to make both life and death a little easier for its chickens.

The changes are a break with current standard practices in the industry, and animal welfare groups are cheering.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms, says there's a simple motivation behind the new initiative. Consumers, especially millennials, "want to make sure that animals are raised in as caring a way as possible. With the least stress, the least discomfort."

The National Academy of Sciences — probably the country's most prestigious scientific group — has reaffirmed its judgment that GMOs are safe to eat. But the group's new report struck a different tone from previous ones, with much more space devoted to concerns about genetically modified foods, including social and economic ones.

Sugar, you might think, is just sugar, no matter where it comes from. But not anymore.

About half of all sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and the other half comes from sugar cane. Now, for the first time, sugar traders are treating these as two different commodities, with two different prices.

Let's say you're an environmentally motivated eater. You want your diet to do as little damage as possible to our planet's forests and grasslands and wildlife.

But how do you decide which food is greener?

Take one example: sugar. About half of America's sugar comes from sugar cane, and half from sugar beets. They grow in completely different climates. Sugar cane is a tropical crop, and sugar beets grow where it's colder and dryer.

Each one has an impact on the environment — sometimes a dramatic impact — but in very different ways.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

From McDonald's to Costco, Big Food has been declaring a shift to buying only cage-free eggs.

In the annals of ill-conceived public relations campaigns, the egg industry's war on Just Mayo deserves at least a mention.

Just Mayo is a product that looks like mayonnaise, tastes like mayonnaise and yet contains no eggs. The company behind it, Hampton Creek, has been getting lots of attention.

Josh Tetrick, the company's founder, has big ambitions. "If we're successful, there are a lot of [food] industries out there that are going to have to adjust," says Tetrick.

Eggs are becoming more expensive and scarce recently because so many chickens have died from avian flu. So bakers, in particular, are looking for cheaper ingredients that can work just as well. (This story previously aired on All Things Considered on July 22, 2015.)

What if farmers, instead of picking up some agricultural chemicals at their local dealer, picked up a load of agricultural microbes instead?

It's something to contemplate, because some big names in the pesticide business — like Bayer and Monsanto — are putting money behind attempts to turn soil microbes into tools that farmers can use to give their crops a boost.

It's a symptom of the soaring interest in the ways microbes affect all of life. In our bodies, they help fight off disease. In the soil, they help deliver nutrients to plants, and perhaps much more.

Bird flu has been striking chicken and turkey farms in parts of the West and Midwest. This past week, it hit a flock of millions egg-laying chickens in northeastern Iowa. Update 4/22/2015: The USDA now says that around 3 million birds were affected in the Iowa facility — down from a previous estimate of 5 million.

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On the face of it, the new potato varieties called "Innate" seem attractive. If you peel the brown skin off their white flesh, you won't find many unsightly black spots. And when you fry them, you'll probably get a much smaller dose of a potentially harmful chemical.

But here's the catch: Some of the biggest potato buyers in the country, such as Frito-Lay and McDonald's, seem afraid to touch these potatoes. Others don't even want to talk about them because they are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Within just a few days, on Jan. 1, all eggs sold in California will have to come from chickens that live in more spacious quarters — almost twice as spacious, in fact, as the cages that have been the industry standard.

It's been a shock to the egg industry, and to grocery stores. Eggs are one of those staples that self-respecting grocery retailers absolutely, positively have to keep in stock. "You have to have bread, milk, lettuce. You have to have eggs," says Ronald Fong, the president and CEO of the California Grocers Association.

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