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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.

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?

Let's say you want to help stop global warming and kick your gasoline habit.

You buy an electric car. And then you go to charge it up and you think: Wait, where's this electricity coming from?

Nationwide, 60% of it comes from power plants burning coal and natural gas, belching carbon dioxide. And across the country, energy experts are trying to figure out what might persuade these electric utilities to change.

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.

There's a big molecule, a protein, inside the leaves of most plants. It's called Rubisco, which is short for an actual chemical name that's very long and hard to remember.

Amanda Cavanagh, a biologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, calls herself a big fan of Rubisco. "It's probably the most abundant protein in the world," she says. It's also super-important.

Steven Falk still remembers the moment he first laid eyes on Lafayette, Calif., even though it was 28 years ago. He was driving there to interview for a job as an assistant to the city manager.

"I saw this amazing landscape of emerald-green hills and native oak woodland, with neighborhoods sitting in and among these verdant valleys," he says. "I loved it from the very first minute I got here."

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!' "

For months, farmers from Mississippi to Minnesota have been waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to make up its mind about a controversial weedkiller called dicamba.

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.

Climate change is coming like a freight train, or a rising tide. And our food, so dependent on rain and suitable temperatures, sits right in its path.

The plants that nourish us won't disappear entirely. But they may have to move to higher and cooler latitudes, or farther up a mountainside. Some places may find it harder to grow anything at all, because there's not enough water.

Here are five foods, and food-growing places, that will see the impact.

Wheat

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.

Mike Hayes and I are sitting on the patio of Blue Bank Resort, the business he owns on Reelfoot Lake, in Tennessee. The sun is going down. It's beautiful.

What really catches your eye here is the cypress trees. They line the lake, and thousands of them are standing right in the water. Hayes tells me that they are more than 200 years old.

Farmers across the southeastern part of North Carolina are just starting to report details about the hit they've taken from Hurricane Florence. The rain is over, but rivers still are rising, and the full picture of damage to farms and the surrounding environment probably won't be known for weeks.

Just inland from the North Carolina coast, right in the path of Hurricane Florence, there's an area where there are many more pigs than people. Each big hog farm has one or more open-air "lagoons" filled with manure, and some could be vulnerable to flooding if the hurricane brings as much rain as feared.

The Sahara desert is expanding, and has been for at least a century. It's a phenomenon that seems impossible to stop.

But it hasn't stopped at least one group of scientists from dreaming of a way to do it. And their proposed solution, a grand scheme that involves covering vast areas of desert with solar panels and windmills, just got published in the prestigious journal Science.

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.

The wild battle in Arkansas over dicamba, the controversial and drift-prone herbicide, just got even crazier. Local courts have told some farmers that they don't have to obey a summertime ban on dicamba spraying that the state's agricultural regulators issued last fall. The state has appealed.

In American farm country, a grass-roots movement is spreading, a movement to keep more roots in the soil. (Not just grass roots, of course; roots of all kinds.) Its goal: Promoting healthy soil that's full of life.

I met three different farmers recently who are part of this movement in one way or another. Each of them took me to a field, dug up some dirt, and showed it off like a kind of hidden treasure.

"You can see how beautiful that soil [is]," said Deb Gangwish, in Shelton, Neb. "I'm not a soil scientist, but I love soil!"

Robots have arrived at Bill and Carol Shuler's farm near Baroda, Mich., and life has taken a turn for the better.

"It absolutely changes your lifestyle. It gives you a life!" says Bill Shuler.

For decades — for the entire time that Bill and Carol have been married, in fact — the Shuler family's routine was practically set in stone: Get up at 3:45 a.m., clean the barn, feed the cows and milk them. Then get breakfast and take care of other work around the farm. At 3 p.m., go back to the barn to feed and milk the cows again.

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