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.

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Big food companies are buying up small ones. Honest Tea is now part of Coca-Cola. The French company Danone controls Stonyfield yogurt. Hormel owns Applegate natural and organic meats.

If you've never tasted a pawpaw, now is the moment.

For just a few weeks every year in September and October, this native, mango-like fruit falls from trees, everywhere from Virginia to Kansas and many points westward. (We discovered them several years back along the banks of the Potomac River when we ran into some kayakers who were snacking on them.)

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a final version of updated rules intended to keep farmworkers from being poisoned by pesticides. The previous "worker protection standard" for farms has been in effect since 1992.

Halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, there's an underground vault filled with seeds. It's sometimes called the "doomsday vault."

For the past seven years, scientists have been putting seeds into this vault, filling it with samples of the crops that people rely on for food.

Now, for the first time, they're about to bring some seeds back out.

Every time a cow or steer in this country is sold for beef, the seller pays a dollar into a special fund.

"We collect about $80 million" each year, says Polly Ruhland, CEO of the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board. "Half of that stays at our state chapters."

All of it, though, pays for research, promotion and marketing of American beef. It funds scientific studies on beef's nutritional quality, promotes beef exports and pays for advertising, like the familiar slogan "Beef, it's what's for dinner."

The campaign to force America's farmers to change the way they handle their animals celebrated a victory this week.

McDonald's USA announced that in the near future, it will no longer buy eggs from chickens that live in cages.

Those cages are still the industry standard, and 90 percent of America's eggs come from chickens that live in them.

In the annals of ill-conceived public relations campaigns, the egg industry's war on Just Mayo deserves at least a mention.

Just Mayo is a product that looks like mayonnaise, tastes like mayonnaise and yet contains no eggs. The company behind it, Hampton Creek, has been getting lots of attention.

Josh Tetrick, the company's founder, has big ambitions. "If we're successful, there are a lot of [food] industries out there that are going to have to adjust," says Tetrick.

While prolonged drought has strained California agriculture, most of the state's farms, it seems, aren't just surviving it: They are prospering.

The environment, though, that's another story. We'll get to that.

There's a new candidate in the century-old quest for perfect, guiltless sweetness.

I encountered it at the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, a combination of Super Bowl, Mecca, and Disneyland for the folks who put the processing in processed food.

Judging by some of the most pessimistic reports from California these days, the place is doomed. You can read all about the folly of trying to build cities in a desert.

Just this week, economists at the University of California, Davis, estimated that water shortages will cost the state's economy $2.7 billion this year. Many farmers are limiting the economic damage by ransacking the environment instead, draining underground aquifers.

In the coming months, a few shoppers will encounter a new and unfamiliar phrase when looking at packages of pork: "Produced without the use of ractopamine."

It's the brainchild of David Maren, founder of Tendergrass Farms, which sells pork products from pigs raised the "all-natural" way, on pasture.

Maren first heard about ractopamine years ago, when he was just getting into this business. Maren was talking with his cousin, who raises pigs the conventional way, in big hog houses.

For the past nine years, some of America's biggest producers of fresh salad greens and vegetables have been waging a quiet war on wildlife surrounding their fields, all in an effort to keep your veggies free of contamination from disease-causing bacteria.

Now, a fresh analysis of safety data suggests that the effort is mostly in vain. Clearing away wildlife habitat does not make food any safer.

Nearly every plant that we now depend on for food — from wheat to beans to tomatoes — comes from ancestors that once grew wild on hills and in forests.

In most cases, we don't know who, exactly, tamed those plants. We don't know which inventive farmer, thousands of years ago, first selected seeds and planted them for food.

The blueberry, though, is different. We know exactly who brought it in from the wild, and where.

It happened in the pine barrens of New Jersey.

Strolling through the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists the other day, I saw several signs offering to solve an urgent problem American bakers face. The signs advertised "egg replacement."

An ancient, abandoned city in Israel has revealed part of the story of how the chicken turned into one of the pillars of the modern Western diet.

The city, now an archaeological site, is called Maresha. It flourished in the Hellenistic period from 400 to 200 BCE.

"The site is located on a trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt," says Lee Perry-Gal, a doctoral student in the department of archaeology at the University of Haifa. As a result, it was a meeting place of cultures, "like New York City," she says.

On the quest for cottage cheese trivia this week for my story for Morning Edition, I asked our research department for help. Researcher Barclay Walsh sent me a photo that stopped me in my tracks.

Take a look. Notice the official White House emblem on the plate. The silver platter. The sculpted ball of cottage cheese encircled by slices of pineapple, perhaps canned. The glass of milk.

As you know, here at The Salt we've been a little obsessed with yogurt lately.

But there's a flip side to the story of the yogurt boom. What about that other product made from fermented milk that had its boom from 1950 to 1975, and has been sliding into obscurity ever since?

Cottage cheese took off as a diet and health food in the 1950s.

Yogurt is a truly living food. The bacteria that transform milk into this thick and sour food also provide a sense of mystique.

For Atanas Valev, they carry the taste and smell of his homeland, Bulgaria. "It's just the smell of the fermented milk. It's tart, tangy tart. That's what yogurt should taste like," he says.

Two years ago, in the middle of the night, a fire broke out in a commercial building on the northern edge of the city of Dallas. It destroyed a small yogurt company called Three Happy Cows.

Two months later, Edgar Diaz, the founder of Three Happy Cows, confessed that he'd set the fire. Yet people who knew Diaz, and had worked with him, could not believe it.

"I was like, Edgar did that? No way! No way. No way," says Ruth Cruz, who worked at Three Happy Cows.

"No. No. It was his baby. Couldn't imagine," says Don Seale, who supplied milk to the factory.

There's new evidence that wild bees, some of nature's most industrious pollinators of wildflowers and crops, are getting squeezed by our planet's changing climate.

The U.S. government's system for regulating the products of biotechnology, including GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, was born in 1986, and it has been controversial from the start. Now, it will be getting a makeover — in part to assure the public that GMOs really are adequately regulated.

Rearranging veggie genes is big business, and we're not even talking about biotechnology. Private companies and university researchers spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year breeding better genetic varieties of food crops.

But organic farmers say those programs have a big blind spot when it comes to figuring out which new varieties are truly better. Few companies or researchers test those varieties under organic conditions.

What if farmers, instead of picking up some agricultural chemicals at their local dealer, picked up a load of agricultural microbes instead?

It's something to contemplate, because some big names in the pesticide business — like Bayer and Monsanto — are putting money behind attempts to turn soil microbes into tools that farmers can use to give their crops a boost.

It's a symptom of the soaring interest in the ways microbes affect all of life. In our bodies, they help fight off disease. In the soil, they help deliver nutrients to plants, and perhaps much more.

Nobody really likes to be graded. Especially when you don't get an A.

Some organic farmers are protesting a new grading system for produce and flowers that's coming into force at Whole Foods. They say it devalues the organic label and could become an "existential threat."