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.

The other day, in Puerto Rico, I stumbled across one small piece of an agricultural revolution. It didn't look all that revolutionary — just an abandoned sugar plantation where workers are clearing away a mass of grass, bushes and trees in order to create better pasture for cattle.

Mike McCloskey, who runs one of the biggest dairy operations in America, is driving down a road in Puerto Rico in an unusually reflective mood.

"This is a full circle-type story, right?" he muses. "I was raised here, had such a fantastic childhood." He ticks off other way stations in his life: Mexico, California, New Mexico, and Indiana. Along the way, McCloskey built an empire of milk. Now, the dairy business has brought him back home again.

Last week, as official Washington obsessed over the Coming Of Trump, there was a gathering in our nation's capital that had almost nothing to do with the inauguration or politics.

It took place at a sleek and stylish restaurant/brewery called Bluejacket, built inside the walls of an old factory. It's a striking and airy space, the dining room framed by tall fermentation tanks made of gleaming steel.

It took years of heated debate, but the federal government has finally decided just how much living space an organic chicken should have.

It's part of a new set of rules that cover many aspects of animal welfare in the organic food industry. But the biggest impact of the rule will be felt in the organic egg industry.

Six years ago, Don Cameron, the general manager of Terranova Ranch, southwest of Fresno, Calif., did something that seemed kind of crazy.

He went out to a nearby river, which was running high because of recent rains, and he opened an irrigation gate. Water rushed down a canal and flooded hundreds of acres of vineyards — even though it was wintertime. The vineyards were quiet. Nothing was growing.

"We started in February, and we flooded grapes continuously, for the most part, until May," Cameron says.

Let's say you're a farmer in the Midwest, growing conventional corn and soybeans. Times are tough right now. Prices are in the toilet.

If only you were selling organic soybeans and corn. They're worth almost twice as much, per bushel, as your conventional crops.

Eighteen years ago, on New Year's Eve, David Fisher visited an old farm in western Massachusetts, near the small town of Conway. No one was farming there at the time, and that's what had drawn Fisher to the place. He was scouting for farmland.

"I remember walking out [to the fallow fields] at some point," Fisher recalls. "And in the moonlight – it was all snowy – it was like a blank canvas."

It's a continuing paradox of the meat industry. Every year, more restaurants and food companies announce that they will sell only meat produced with minimal or no use of antibiotics. And every year, despite those pledges, more antibiotics are administered to the nation's swine, cattle and poultry.

Beth Briczinski has been keeping a list of all the things companies are turning into products labeled as a kind of milk. "There's soy and almond and rice," she says. "Hemp, pistachio, macadamia nut, sunflower."

Briczinski is highly annoyed by these products. She's vice president for dairy foods and nutrition at the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents the original milk producers: dairy farmers.

This week, just days before he says goodbye to his job, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack landed one last punch in a brawl that's gone on at his department since he got there eight long years ago.

Erick Ask still remembers the first time he heard about the food ingredient that would become the focus of his professional life. He was in ninth grade.

"Mr. Elslip, my biology teacher, said to us one day, 'How many of you have eaten seaweed?' " Ask recalls. "And nobody raised their hand. And he says, 'Well, how many of you have eaten ice cream?' And we all raised our hands. And he says, 'Well, then you have eaten seaweed!' "

If you're curious about what people really think about some of the hottest of hot-button food controversies, the Pew Research Center has just the thing for you: a survey of attitudes toward genetic modification, organic food and the importance of eating healthfully.

The survey results are published in a 99-page report that can keep you occupied for days. But if you're pressed for time, here are some of the most interesting highlights that caught our eye.

The day after Donald Trump swept to victory, the head of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Zippy Duvall, released a videotaped statement aimed at the President-elect and other political leaders in Washington.

"Rural America turned out and made their voice heard in this election," he said. "Now it's time for our elected leaders to support rural America."

Are the many hog and poultry farms of eastern North Carolina creating "fields of filth," as two groups of environmental activists put it last summer? And if they are, what happens when a hurricane comes along and dumps a foot and a half of water on them?

There's a seductive idea, currently being road-tested, for how to stop the world's forests from disappearing. It relies on big food companies.

That's because most forests are being cleared in order to grow crops or graze cattle. And the resulting palm oil, soybeans or beef find their way into foods being sold by a relatively small number of global companies.

So here's the strategy: Get those companies to boycott products from deforested land, and much of the economic incentive to clear more forests will disappear. This should slow down or even stop the loss of forests.

Matt O'Hayer thought he was in the idyllic part of the egg business. He's CEO of Vital Farms, based in Austin, Texas, which markets eggs from hens that run around outdoors, on grassy pastures, at about a hundred different farms.

"I thought that there's nothing more beautiful than eggs, where you have sort of a symbiotic relationship; you take care of the hen and she gives you this little gift every day," says O'Hayer.

Until a few years ago, he never thought about where those hens come from, or what happened to their male siblings.

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.

Last summer, I went on Morning Edition to talk about the quest for a great-tasting tomato. And at the very end of the conversation, I confidently declared that no one should ever put tomatoes in the refrigerator. It kills the taste, I said. That's what I'd heard from scientists and tomato growers alike.

About one-third of all the food produced globally is either lost or wasted. Pests and infections destroy fruits and vegetables. Grains often rot in storage or during transport. And then there's food in consumers' kitchens and refrigerators that doesn't get eaten, and eventually discarded.

Such losses amount to more than $900 billion globally, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Farmers, more than anyone else, manage America's land and water. They grow crops or graze cattle on more than half of the country's land outside of Alaska.

Most of America's poultry producers have been promising to cut back on the use of antibiotics in recent years. One of them, however, has consistently led the way.

For all the international furor over genetically modified food, or GMOs, the biotech industry has really only managed to put a few foreign genes into food crops.

The first of these genes — actually, a small family of similar genes — came from a kind of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Those genes make plants poisonous to certain insect pests.

No chemical used by farmers, it seems, gets more attention than glyphosate, also known by its trade name, Roundup. That's mainly because it is a cornerstone of the shift to genetically modified crops, many of which have been modified to tolerate glyphosate. This, in turn, persuaded farmers to rely on this chemical for easy control of their weeds. (Easy, at least, until weeds evolved to become immune to glyphosate, but that's a different story.)

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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Like so many brilliant innovations, the idea seems obvious in hindsight. Just combine college, coffee, and chemical engineering. Of course!

In the ferocious, sprawling brawl over genetically modified crops, one particular question seems like it should have a simple factual answer: Did those crops lead to more use of pesticides, or less?

Sadly, there's no simple answer.

It's been four years since scientists first started accusing a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, of killing bees. These pesticides are used as seed coatings on most corn and soybean seeds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture took a largely symbolic step to help struggling dairy farmers this week. It announced that it will buy $20 million worth of cheese and give it away to food banks. The USDA is doing this, it says, to help "reduce a cheese surplus that is at a 30-year high."

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.

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