Daniel Charles | KUER 90.1

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.

For Dan Younggren, who grows sugar beets in the northwest corner of Minnesota, 2019 was a year of plagues.

First came the water. "Ten inches, up to almost 20 inches of rain," Younggren says. The fields in his region were so wet that farmers couldn't work in them.

On a soggy field in eastern North Carolina, Jason Tew and his crew of loggers are cutting trees and sorting logs into piles based on their size and the type of wood. There's a lot of pine, but also hardwoods: poplar, sweet gum, elm and oak. Some piles will go for making plywood; some will become absorbent fiber in baby diapers.

The least valuable pile is full of small hardwood tree limbs. "It's basically trash," Tew says. "We would have normally hauled that back in the woods and just left it."

There's new evidence that a widely used family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, already controversial because they can be harmful to pollinators, could be risky for insects and fish that live in water, too.

The evidence comes from Lake Shinji, which lies near Japan's coast, next to the Sea of Japan.

Masumi Yamamuro, a scientist with the Geological Survey of Japan, says the lake is famous for its views of the setting sun. "It's amazingly beautiful," she says.

Foods go in and out of style. Few of them, though, have gone through as dramatic a renaissance in their reputation as Brussels sprouts.

For many years, they were scorned. Even Steve Bontadelli admits it, and he makes his living growing them. "A lot of people of my generation hated them," he says. "Their moms boiled them and made them even stinkier."

Every year, the company Ingredion buys millions of tons of corn and cassava from farmers and turns them into starches and sugars that go into foods such as soft drinks, yogurt and frozen meals.

Lots of things can go wrong along the way. Weather can destroy crops. Machinery can break.

Lately, though, Ingredion's top executives have been worried about a new kind of risk: what might happen on a hotter planet.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a trip to Europe this week but was followed by allegations that he and other American diplomats helped to try to strong-arm Ukraine into aiding President Trump's reelection campaign.

At a public meeting in Athens on Saturday, a Greek journalist asked Pompeo about the Ukraine-related investigation back home. Pompeo seemed exasperated by the question. "This is what's wrong, when the world doesn't focus on the things that matter ... and instead, you get caught up in a silly gotcha game," he said.

In the struggle to end global warming, one community in central Pennsylvania is having remarkable success. It's growing, with tens of thousands of people, yet its greenhouse emissions have been dropping dramatically.

Perhaps most amazing: Those reductions have paid for themselves.

This is not your typical town — it's Penn State University. But in many ways, it's just like any other town or small city.

Something odd is happening to streams and rivers on the high plains of Kansas and Colorado. Some have disappeared.

"We would go and visit these streams, and in many cases it's like a dirt bike channel. It's no longer functioning as a stream," says Joshuah Perkin, a biologist at Texas A&M University who studies the fish that live in these streams.

For the first time in half a century, the U.S. government just revised the way that it inspects pork slaughterhouses. The change has been long in coming. It's been debated, and even tried out at pilot plants, for the past 20 years. It gives pork companies themselves a bigger role in the inspection process. Critics call it privatization.

Walking around a park near Allentown, Pa., I didn't even notice the bugs at first. Then Heather Leach arrived. She's an insect expert from Penn State University.

My search for the secrets of American ketchup began in a sun-baked field near Los Banos, Calif.

The field didn't look like much at first. Just a wide, pale-green carpet of vines. Then Ross Siragusa, the head of global agriculture for the company Kraft Heinz, bent over, lifted up some of the vines, and revealed a mass of small, red fruit, too many to count.

One of the biggest fears of the fresh fruit industry just came true.

A fungal disease that has been destroying banana plantations in Asia has arrived in Latin America.

"For me, the worst moment was [seeing] the first pictures," says Fernando Alexander García-Bastidas, a banana researcher at the Dutch company Keygene, who carried out tests confirming what had happened.

Consider, for a moment, the circuitous journey of the insecticide called thiamethoxam, on its way to killing a wild wasp.

Alejandro Tena, a researcher at the Valencia Institute of Agricultural Research, in Spain, mixed the chemical into water used to irrigate clementine trees. This is a common practice among citrus farmers. As intended, the tree roots absorbed the insecticide, and it spread throughout the trees' branches and leaves.

Brazilian scientists are reporting a sharp increase this year in the clearing of forests in the Amazon. That's bad news for endangered ecosystems, as well as the world's climate. Deforestation releases large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

If you're caught in a trade war, it's good to be a farmer.

Lots of American companies have lost sales since the Trump administration and China embarked on the current cycle of tariff-raising and retaliation. Few, if any, have been compensated as handsomely as farmers.

Robert Henry is driving along the top of a Mississippi River levee, giving me a tour of land where he'd love to be planting soybeans right now. We're just east of New Madrid, Mo.

"Smells kind of raunchy, doesn't it?" he says.

From the window of Henry's truck, I see what looks like a swamp, with trees standing in water. Then we make a turn, and suddenly, as far as I can see, there's water. It covers a wide flood plain between the main river channel and the levee. This is where Henry normally grows his crops.

Something strange is happening to Pengyin Chen's soybean experiments at the University of Missouri's Fisher Delta Research Center in Portageville, Mo.

"You see how small they are?" says Chen, gesturing at a field filled with thousands of small plots of soybeans.

It's a disturbing question that haunts many shoppers with good intentions: What am I actually accomplishing by buying coffee or chocolate with the Fair Trade label? Does the extra money that I pay actually benefit the people who harvested those beans?

Take a walk through the grocery store; the packages are talking to you, proclaiming their moral virtue, appealing to your ideals: organic, cage-free, fair trade.

When I dug into the world of eco-labels recently, I was surprised to find that some of the people who know these labels best are ambivalent about them.

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.

This past week in San Francisco, food writers and environmentalists gathered to taste some breakfast cereal.

This particular cereal had an ingredient — the milled seeds of a little-known plant called Kernza — that's the result of a radical campaign to reinvent agriculture and reverse an environmentally disastrous choice made by our distant ancestors.

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.

If you ate a hamburger today, or a high-priced steak, chances are it came from an animal that was fed an antibiotic during the last few months of its life.

This is one of the most controversial uses of antibiotics in the entire food industry. There's growing pressure on the beef industry to stop doing this.

I wanted to know how hard that would be. My questions eventually led me to Phelps County Feeders, a cattle feedlot near Kearney, Neb.

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.

The world is getting greener.

That's according to Chi Chen, a doctoral student in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University. Chen has been mining data collected by an orbiting NASA camera that monitors green vegetation on Earth's surface, day by day.

This week, Chen and his colleagues published a new study showing that the amount of our planet's land surface covered by green leaves increased between 2000 and 2017.

The biggest, most valuable new technology on Midwestern farms these days is a new family of soybean seeds. But some farmers say they're buying these seeds partly out of fear.

A new lawsuit claims that the company Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, violated antitrust laws when it introduced the seeds. Bayer is asking the court to dismiss the complaint.

Let's start with the big picture.

There are about 8,000 slaughterhouses and meat processors in the United States that can't legally operate without a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector on-site. Those inspectors are working through the shutdown.

Meanwhile, 80,000 or so other food factories handle everything else, from cauliflower to cookies. The Food and Drug Administration oversees them with a very different regulatory philosophy.

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