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.

You've probably seen the labels on meat in the store: "Raised without antibiotics." They're a selling point for people who don't like how many drugs are used on chickens, turkey, hogs and beef cattle.

Across the Midwestern corn belt, a familiar battle has resumed, hidden in the soil. On one side are tiny, white larvae of the corn rootworm. On the other side are farmers and the insect-killing arsenal of modern agriculture.

The typical life of an egg-laying chicken is beginning to change dramatically.

Ninety percent of the eggs we eat come from chickens that live in long lines of wire cages, about eight birds to a cage. Animal welfare groups have long been campaigning against these cages.

Ever heard of the World Food Prize? It's sometimes called the "Nobel Prize for food and agriculture," but it has struggled to get people's attention. Prize winners tend to be agricultural insiders, and many are scientists. Last year's laureate, for instance, was Daniel Hillel, a pioneer of water-saving "micro-irrigation."

A federal appeals court slapped down a quixotic legal campaign against Monsanto's biotech patents this week.

Organic farmers had gone to court to declare those patents invalid. The farmers, according to their lawyers, were "forced to sue preemptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement" if their field became contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified seed.

When you pick up a cut of beef at the store, would you like to know that animal's life history? The technology to do this does exist — at least in Michigan, where the state requires all cattle to carry electronic ear tags. It's the only state that requires such tags.

Michigan's cattle-tracking system was forced on farmers because of a crisis. Fifteen years ago, cattle in part of the state started catching tuberculosis from wild deer.

A farmer in Oregon has found some genetically engineered wheat growing on his land. It's an unwelcome surprise, because this type of wheat has never been approved for commercial planting.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's investigating, trying to find out how this wheat got there. The USDA says there's no risk to public health, but wheat exporters are worried about how their customers in Asia and Europe will react.

Once upon a time, there was a small Hungarian village that was very proud of its sour cherries. The village was called Újfehértó. As in many Hungarian villages, tall cherry trees lined the streets and provided welcome shade in the summertime.

When communism came to Hungary after World War II, the government introduced big collective farms, and Hungarian scientists had to decide which cherries the farms should grow.

Two seemingly common-sense, bipartisan food reforms have gotten mugged on Capitol Hill in recent days. If you're a loyal reader of The Salt, you've heard of them.

According to a new survey of America's beekeepers, almost a third of the country's honeybee colonies did not make it through the winter.

That's been the case, in fact, almost every year since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began this annual survey, six years ago.

Over the past six years, on average, 30 percent of all the honeybee colonies in the U.S. died off over the winter. The worst year was five years ago. Last year was the best: Just 22 percent of the colonies died.

It's a captivating story: A global rice-growing revolution that started with a Jesuit priest in Madagascar, far from any recognized center of agricultural innovation. Every so often, it surfaces in the popular media — most recently in The Guardian, which earlier this year described farmers in one corner of India hauling in gigantic rice harvests without resorting to pesticides or genetic modification.

Say the words "crop insurance" and most people start to yawn. For years, few nonfarmers knew much about these government-subsidized insurance policies, and even fewer found any fault with them. After all, who could criticize a safety net for farmers that saves them from getting wiped out by floods or drought?

At the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Education (CATIE) in Turrialba, Costa Rica, you can touch the history of coffee — and also, if the optimists have their way, part of its future.

Here, spread across 25 acres, are coffee trees that take you back to coffee's origins.

"The story starts in Africa, no? East Africa," says Eduardo Somarriba, a researcher at CATIE, as we walk through long rows of small coffee trees.

What does it take to find guilt-free coffee?

Much of our coffee comes from places where the environment is endangered and workers earn very little — sometimes, just a few dollars for a whole day's work. Coffee farmers have helped cut down tropical forests, and most of them use pesticides.

Coffee is more than a drink. For many of us — OK, for me — it's woven into the fabric of every day.

It also connects us to far corners of the globe.

For instance, every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of Counter Culture Coffee, a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, N.C., and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.

My first reaction when I heard details of this week's deadly fertilizer explosion in Texas was horror.

My second thought was, "Maybe I shouldn't have pushed to change that headline."

The White House unveiled its proposal Wednesday for drastic changes in government programs that donate food to fight hunger abroad — and surprised no one.

As we reported last week, rumors of such an overhaul had been circulating for weeks, arousing both hope and anger among organizations involved in global anti-hunger programs.

Washington is awash in rumors this week that the White House is planning major changes in the way the U.S. donates food to fight hunger in some of the world's poorest countries.

It has set off an emotional debate. Both sides say they are trying to save lives.

America's policies on food aid are singularly generous — and also unusually selfish. On the generous side, the U.S. spends roughly $1.5 billion every year to send food abroad, far more than any other country.

Environmentalists and beekeepers are calling on the government to ban some of the country's most widely used insect-killing chemicals.

The pesticides, called neonicotinoids, became popular among farmers during the 1990s. They're used to coat the seeds of many agricultural crops, including the biggest crop of all: corn. Neonics, as they're called, protect those crops from insect pests.

There's a kind of rice growing in some test plots in the Philippines that's unlike any rice ever seen before. It's yellow. Its backers call it "golden rice." It's been genetically modified so that it contains beta-carotene, the source of vitamin A.

Some of the most healthful foods you can think of — blueberries, cranberries, apples, almonds and squash — would never get to your plate without the help of insects. No insects, no pollination. No pollination, no fruit.

Do failing grades inspire more effort? Oxfam hopes so. The activist group on behalf of the poor has just handed out report cards to 10 of the world's top food companies, grading their commitments to protect the environment and treat people fairly.

Oxfam doesn't grade on the curve, evidently. Every company flunked. But two European-based companies, Nestle and Unilever, were at least better than the others.

Economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gazing into their crystal ball, see American farmers planting and harvesting huge amounts of corn, soybeans, and wheat this year. They're predicting a record harvest of corn: 14 billion bushels, up nearly 40 percent over last year's drought-crippled level.

With supply up, prices will fall. The USDA thinks that the price of the average bushel of corn could fall by a third. And soybean production and price are expected to follow a similar track.

For years, I've been hearing stories about the changing agricultural landscape of the northern plains. Grasslands are disappearing, farmers told me. They're being replaced by fields of corn and soybeans.

This week, the Supreme Court will take up a classic David-and-Goliath case. On one side, there's a 75-year-old farmer in Indiana named Vernon Hugh Bowman; on the other, the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

Chances are, you've never heard of ractopamine. But as of Monday, U.S. meat exports to Russia — worth $500 million dollars a year — have been suspended, all because of this obscure chemical.

Russian officials say American meat products won't be allowed into their country unless the meat is certified free of ractopamine.

There's a global campaign to force meat producers to rein in their use of antibiotics on pigs, chickens and cattle. European countries, especially Denmark and the Netherlands, have taken the lead. The U.S. is moving, haltingly, toward similar restrictions.

There's a part of our body that's only now getting mapped: the trillions of microbes, mostly bacteria, that live in our guts.

Some scientists describe this community as a previously unnoticed vital organ. It appears to play a role in how quickly we gain weight and how well we fight off disease.

A study published in the journal Science suggests that changes in this community of microbes also may cause kwashiorkor, a kind of deadly malnutrition.

Take a look at this remarkable graph — is it the stock market? Home sales?

Nope. Click on the blue box in the lower right-hand corner and you'll see that the blue line tracks the number of chicken wings that Americans bought at grocery stores over the last year. See that mighty surge of wing-buying in early February? Apparently, you just cannot have a Super Bowl party without chicken wings — millions and millions of chicken wings.

Many big food companies are caught in a dilemma these days. They want to rebrand themselves as merchants of health — Coca-Cola's new anti-obesity ads are just the latest example — but many of their profits still come from products that make nutritionists scowl.

If there's one person who symbolizes this tension, it's Derek Yach.

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