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.

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.

A lot can happen after we put an episode out into the world. That's why we love The Rest Of The Story, our periodic check-in on stories we've reported.

Today on the show, we revisit some episodes from the year that was. In case you missed them, here are the original episodes featured.

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."

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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.

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Will Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testify?

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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.

When food starts making people sick all across the country, before there's a national announcement or a public panic, there's a rapid response team of germ detectives that jumps into action to try and save the day, and sometimes, to save the harvest too.

Louise Fraser showed up at a hospital in New Jersey one day, sick with E. coli. The really bad kind. The kind that can kill you. At the same time, all across the United States, hundreds of people were getting poisoned by the same thing.

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It's hard to build new housing in cities like San Francisco. There's restrictive zoning that keeps developers from building too high. Plus, neighborhood councils get to object to specific projects they don't like.

These restrictions are a big part of why rents have gotten... too high. So a group of renters is pushing for a simple solution: Let developers build.

Only problem is, almost everybody hates it. In working class neighborhoods, people worry new development means gentrification. In richer areas, homeowners don't want high-rises blocking their million-dollar views.

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California is generating a ton of solar power--some days, more than people can use. It could power the whole state soon, except for one problem: There's no way to hold on to all that energy at night.

Some of the country's biggest energy companies are trying to figure out how to store the power. They're buying giant lithium batteries, and imagining ways to tap the batteries in electric cars. But there's another option.

Today on the show, we visit the world's largest battery, built out of a mountain and a lake.

It's 2016. Stephanie Strom, a reporter at The New York Times, gets a hot tip from some of her Wall Street contacts. They're big investors, including hedge funds.

They tell her that some aggressive investors — they don't say exactly who — have made a big bet against chicken companies. Those investors think chicken companies have grown too fast, and the nation is headed for a glut of chicken.

"They were betting that the price of chicken was going to fall," Strom recalls; chicken companies' profits would disappear, and their stock price also would take a hit.

Arty Schronce was the director of Georgia's Poultry Marketing News. As part of his job, he'd call up chicken companies and ask them how much they were charging for chicken. He'd publish the numbers in something called The Georgia Dock.

A couple of years ago, things started to get weird. Today on the show, we follow the story of how some shadowy Wall Street investors became convinced that chicken companies were conspiring to charge Americans too much for their chicken. They try to expose the sham and Arty Schronce gets caught in the middle.

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.

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