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.

If you snip a bit of DNA from a vegetable, but add no new genes, does that vegetable qualify as a genetically modified organism, or GMO?

Most food, if we trace it back far enough, began as a seed. And the business of supplying those seeds to farmers has been transformed over the past half-century. Small-town companies have given way to global giants.

A new round of industry consolidation is now underway. Multibillion-dollar mergers are in progress, or under discussion, that could put more than half of global seed sales in the hands of three companies.

If there's anyone who can trace the course of this transformation, and explain what drove it, it's Ed Robinson.

A century ago, your typical chicken was really kind of scrawny. It took about four months to grow to a weight of 3 pounds. One result: Americans really didn't eat much chicken.

Today, the typical broiler, or meat chicken, turns feed into meat at a mind-boggling pace. Compared with the bird of yesteryear, it grows to twice the size in half the time. But some animal welfare advocates want the poultry industry to turn back the clock. Modern meat chickens are growing so fast, they say, that they are suffering.

You'll soon know whether many of the packaged foods you buy contain ingredients derived from genetically modified plants, such as soybeans and corn.

Over the past week or so, big companies including General Mills, Mars and Kellogg have announced plans to label such products – even though they still don't think it's a good idea.

Take a look at the next box of strawberries you find in the store. Depending on where in the country you happen to be, it may have come from Florida. But it won't for much longer.

Why?

For the past several years, a scientist in Brookings, S.D., has been engaged in an escalating struggle with his employer, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. The scientist, Jonathan Lundgren, says that he has been persecuted because his research points out problems — including harm to bees — with a popular class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

Chances are, you've never heard of flubendiamide. It's not among the most toxic insecticides, and it's not among the widely used chemicals, either. In recent years, it has been used on about a quarter of the nation's tobacco and 14 percent of almonds, peppers and watermelons.

Here's an exercise in deductive logic, with implications for our food supply.

Fact: Insects such as bees and butterflies are helpful, and sometimes essential, for producing much of our food, including a majority of our fruits, vegetables and nuts.

I came home from a trip the other day with a small plastic bag filled with 4 ounces of brown powder that, truth be told, made me a little nervous.

The powder had a strong odor that reminded me of badly burnt coffee, with perhaps a note of brown sugar.

I didn't dare open that bag. It contained crude caffeine, about 90 percent pure. That small bag held as much caffeine as 1,000 tall lattes from Starbucks, or 2,000 cans of Coke or Pepsi. It was enough to kill several people.

Chipotle Mexican Grill certainly is not the first company to face lawsuits and subpoenas because its food made people sick. Other companies, in fact, have faced far worse: Companies like Blue Bell, Dole and Earthbound Farms have been linked to disease outbreaks that actually killed people.

But it's difficult to think of another case in which a company's food-safety troubles provoked such schadenfreude in the food industry. The company, it seems, made a lot of enemies while marketing its "food with integrity."

Deep in the heart of the arcane laws that give farmers a helping hand, there's something called "crop insurance." It's a huge program, costing taxpayers anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion each year.

It's called an insurance program, and it looks like insurance. Farmers buy policies from private companies and pay premiums (which are cheap because of government subsidies) to insure themselves against crop failures and falling prices. It's mainly used by corn, soybean, cotton and wheat farmers. Defenders of the program call it a safety net.

It took Sen. Ted Cruz to finally persuade me to answer a riddle that's bothered me for years. Suppose somebody yanked away the law that currently props up the nation's ethanol industry, as Cruz has proposed. What would actually happen?

Farm subsidies don't lack for critics. Free-market conservatives and welfare state-defending liberals alike have called for deep cuts in these payments to farmers. After all, farmers, as a group, are wealthier than the average American. Why should they get tens of billions of dollars each year in federal aid?

In citrus-growing areas, you see lots of old converted school buses on the road; these are company buses, carrying the workers who will harvest oranges and grapefruit. And in the evening, some of those buses roll into a truck stop on a two-lane country road south of the town of LaBelle. Young men scramble out, trot into the store and line up at the taco counter.

This is where I met Esteban Gonzalez and his brother Isaac, from the Mexican state of Veracruz.

From McDonald's to Costco, Big Food has been declaring a shift to buying only cage-free eggs.

The bananas you find in the average U.S. grocery store are pretty much the same: They're the genetic variety known as Cavendish.

In the market in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, though, you have choices.

The special holiday version of Hershey's Kisses, now on sale nationwide, is an icon of the food industry's past, and perhaps also a harbinger of its future.

Back when Milton Hershey started making this product, more than a century ago, it was a simpler time. He ran the factory and the sales campaigns — although, for decades, he refused to advertise.

Today, The Hershey Company is a giant enterprise with factories around the globe. It owns food companies in China, Brazil and India.

If you go by their declarations and promises, meat producers are drastically cutting back on the use of antibiotics to treat their poultry, pigs and cattle. Over the past year, one big food company after another has announced plans to stop using these drugs.

But if you go by the government's data on drugs sold to livestock producers, it's a different story.

Is it those holiday parties filled with people eating together? We're not sure, but we keep hearing about new clusters of people getting poisoned by their meals.

The latest outbreak sickened at least 120 people in Boston, most of them students at Boston College.

This included eight members of the college's basketball team. The team is scheduled to play Providence this evening, and as of this morning, it's unclear whether the game will happen.

In America, our food options are remarkably unaffected by the changing seasons. We just keep eating salad greens and tomatoes without regard to the onset of winter.

In most of the country, there's little chance that the greens we eat in the late fall and winter are locally grown.

But if there were greenhouses nearby, they could be. And in a small but growing number of places, local greenhouses are there.

Take Lower Makefield Township, Pa., right across the Delaware River from Trenton, N.J.

Chances are, you've picked up some chatter about the new global talks on climate change. If you can't quite see how it matters to you, personally, you might want to take a peek inside your pantry. Or your candy jar. Because it might just affect your access to everything from cheese to chocolate.

"It's very clear now that a changing climate will have a profound effect on agriculture," says Molly Brown, a geographer at the University of Maryland.

Take one simple example, she says: Vermont.

Ever been caught telling different stories to different people? It's awkward.

Dow AgroSciences, which sells seeds and pesticides to farmers, made
contradictory claims to different parts of the U.S. government about its latest herbicide. The Environmental Protection Agency just found out, and now wants to cancel Dow's legal right to sell the product.

There's an oil painting on one wall in the cluttered room that serves as central headquarters of Burch Farms, a large vegetable grower in Faison, N.C. The painting shows an African-American couple, the woman in a long, plain dress, the man in a homespun shirt. They're digging sweet potatoes with their bare hands and an old-fashioned hoe.

A kind of salmon that's been genetically modified so that it grows faster may be on the way to a supermarket near you. The Food and Drug Administration approved the fish on Thursday — a decision that environmental and food-safety groups are vowing to fight.

Five years ago, Congress promised an overhaul of the nation's food safety system, passing the Food Safety Modernization Act.

It took much longer than expected, but the Food and Drug Administration has now released the centerpiece — or at least, the most contested — part of that overhaul. These are rules that cover farmers who grow fresh produce, as well as food importers.

Glyphosate, widely known by its trade name, Roundup, probably gets more attention than any other herbicide. It's one of world's most-used weedkillers, and it is also closely linked to the growth of genetically modified crops.

Monsanto invented Roundup, and also invented crops that grow well when it's used on them. Farmers find that combination almost irresistible.

There are only two diseases that humans have wiped from the face of the earth. One is smallpox. The other one, you may not have heard of.

It's a cattle disease called rinderpest. Even the name sounds scary. It's German for "cattle plague." It was once one of the most fearsome diseases on the planet.

When you're a nationwide food company, it can be tough to live up to your own lofty marketing slogans.

Chipotle claims to serve only "food with integrity." But some of that food, it appears, may have infected a couple of dozen customers in Oregon and Washington state with E. coli bacteria over the past week or so.

The parade of fast-food companies promising to sell meat from animals that never received antibiotics just got significantly longer. Subway, the ubiquitous sandwich chain, is following the lead of Chipotle, Panera, Chick-fil-A and McDonalds, with its promise Tuesday that its meat suppliers gradually will go antibiotic-free.

More and more schools are trying to serve meals with food that was grown nearby. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just released some statistics documenting the trend.

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