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 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

You probably don't think of cotton as food.

There's a good reason for that. Farmers grow it mostly for the fluffy white fibers that turn into T-shirts or sheets. Cotton plants do produce seeds, but those seeds are poisonous, at least to humans.

This week, though,the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a new kind of cotton — one that's been genetically engineered so that the seeds are safe to eat.

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.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided that organic food companies can keep using an emulsifier called carrageenan in foods like ice cream and high-protein drinks, despite a vote by an influential organic advisory committee to ban the ingredient.

Robots have taken over many of America's factories. They can explore the depths of the ocean, and other planets. They can play ping-pong.

But can they pick a strawberry?

"You kind of learn, when you get into this — it's really hard to match what humans can do," says Bob Pitzer, an expert on robots and co-founder of a company called Harvest CROO Robotics. (CROO is an acronym. It stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.)

It's a long way, metaphorically speaking, from the campus of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to the Sonic Drive-In burger joints that line America's highways and small towns, particularly in the South.

Last fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started looking for dangerous bacteria in a few of America's most beloved fresh foods: parsley, cilantro, basil, and prepared guacamole. The very freshness of these foods carries a risk. Since they aren't normally cooked, they may harbor nasty bugs like salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

The fishing industry has long been hard to monitor. Its global footprint is difficult even to visualize. Much fishing takes place unobserved, far from land, and once the boats move on, they leave behind few visible traces of their activity.

In Arkansas, there is a kind of David vs. Goliath battle underway over a weedkiller.

On one side, there is the giant Monsanto Company. On the other, a committee of 18 people, mostly farmers and small-business owners, that regulates the use of pesticides in the state. It has banned Monsanto's latest way of killing weeds during the growing season.

Terry Fuller is on that committee. He never intended to pick a fight with a billion-dollar company. "I didn't feel like I was leading the charge," he says. "I felt like I was just trying to do my duty."

The Trump administration is proposing a major shake-up in one of the country's most important "safety net" programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Under the proposal, most SNAP recipients would lose much of their ability to choose the food they buy with their SNAP benefits.

The proposal is included in the Trump administration budget request for fiscal year 2019. It would require approval from Congress.

Honeybees are amazing and adorable, and they suffer when people spray pesticides or mow down wildflowers. We've heard plenty in recent years about collapsing bee colonies.

So Jonas Geldmann, at the University of Cambridge, says he understands how the honeybee became a symbol of environmental conservation.

But he still doesn't like it.

"Lots of conservation organizations are promoting local honey, and even promoting sponsorships of honeybees and that kind of stuff, and that increasingly annoyed me," he says.

A tablespoon of soil contains billions of microscopic organisms. Life on Earth, especially the growing of food, depends on these microbes, but scientists don't even have names for most of them, much less a description.

That's changing, slowly, thanks to researchers like Noah Fierer, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Fierer think microbes have lived in obscurity for too long. "They do a lot of important things for us, directly or indirectly, and I hope they get the respect they deserve," he says.

This year, trucks and other heavy-duty motors in America will burn some 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel that's made primarily from vegetable oil. They're doing it, though, not because it's cheaper or better, but because they're required to, by law.

The law is the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS. For some, especially Midwestern farmers, it's the key to creating clean energy from American soil and sun. For others — like many economists — it's a wasteful misuse of resources.

Wintertime is a special time of year at Cafe Berlin, located just a few blocks from the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

This is when they roll out their menu of wild game, such as deer, wild boar, and quail. Regular customers have come to expect it. "They ask, weeks in advance, 'When does the wild game menu start? When does it start?' " says James Watson, one of the restaurant's chefs.

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