Dan 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 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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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.

Milk prices are in the tank. You may not have noticed this, since prices in the supermarket have fallen only slightly. But on the farm, it's dramatic. Dairy farmers are getting about 20 percent less for their milk than they did last year; 40 percent less than when milk prices hit an all-time peak two years ago.

"We're losing money," says Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairyman's Association. In Europe and Australia, dairy farmers have taken to the streets to protest their plight.

I did a little experiment the other day. I stood outside a Whole Foods Market in Washington, D.C., with two cartons of large brown eggs. One carton had the words "Non-GMO Project Verified" on it, with a little orange butterfly. It also said cage-free. The other carton had a different label; a green and white circle with the words "USDA Organic." One other crucial difference: the organic carton cost 50 cents more.

I asked shoppers which carton they would buy.

When agricultural extension agent Tom Barber drives the country roads of eastern Arkansas this summer, his trained eye can spot the damage: soybean leaves contorted into cup-like shapes.

He's seeing it in field after field. Similar damage is turning up in Tennessee and in the "boot-heel" region of Missouri. Tens of thousands of acres are affected.

Flour seems innocuous. We've long been warned to wash our hands after handling chicken, and to cook our hamburgers well. We wash lettuce that came straight from the field. But really, flour?

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminded everyone that flour is, in fact, a raw, uncooked food, just like those fresh greens. Yes, it can make you sick.

Most of us — and by "us," I mean urban and suburban consumers like me — don't usually get to meet the people who pick our apples, oranges or strawberries.

So about a year ago, I decided to launch a series of stories about the people who harvest some of America's iconic seasonal foods. Many of these workers move from place to place, following the seasons.

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.

The season for blueberries used to be short. You'd find fresh berries in the store just during a couple of months in the middle of summer.

Now, though, it's always blueberry season somewhere. Blueberry production is booming. The berries are grown in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest — not to mention the southern hemisphere.

But in any one location, the season is still short. And this means that workers follow the blueberry harvest, never staying in one place for long.

Cleaning a freshly picked head of lettuce can be an act of mindfulness, your worries melting away as you wash and tear each leaf. And the payoff, along with the beautiful summer salad, is a feeling of virtuous accomplishment.

But if you're a busy working parent, the rip-and-release salad kit in a bag can take some hassle out of dinner prep.

After months of bargaining and backroom arguments, the Senate has voted in favor of a new national standard for labeling food that contains ingredients from genetically modified crops. The essence of the deal: Companies will have to disclose their GMO ingredients, but they won't have to put that information right on the label.

Many food companies are fiercely opposed to such GMO labels because they believe consumers will perceive them — incorrectly — as a warning that those products are nutritionally inferior or even unsafe to eat.

A few weeks ago, I went back to the federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, for another conversation with Edgar Diaz.

One summer day in 2012, on a long drive through northern Mozambique, I saw groups of men standing beside the road selling buckets filled with sweet potatoes. My translator and I pulled over to take a closer look. Many of the sweet potatoes, as I'd hoped, were orange inside. In fact, the men had cut off the tips of each root to show off that orange color. It was a selling point.

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."

If you're a home gardener in most of the country, your tomato plants are probably just getting started. It's not even officially summer.

Yet if you go to the grocery store, you'll probably see tomatoes that come from even farther north: Canada!

Our cold-weather neighbor sends us more tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers than we send the other way. Despite all the vegetable fields of California and Florida.

When I discovered this fact, I was so shocked that I decided to investigate.

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