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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The Salt
4:35 pm
Wed July 9, 2014

Is Foster Farms A Food Safety Pioneer Or A Persistent Offender?

Foster Farms set up new procedures to deal with salmonella contamination after the USDA threatened to shut down its plants last fall.
Justin Sullivan Getty Images

Originally published on Wed July 9, 2014 6:19 pm

Foster Farms, a chicken producer in California, just can't seem to stop bleeding bad news.

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The Salt
9:34 am
Tue July 8, 2014

Globe-Trotting GMO Bananas Arrive For Their First Test In Iowa

Ugandan researcher Stephen Buah and Professor James Dale hold bananas bred to be rich in vitamin A at Queensland University of Technology.
Erika Fish Courtesy of Queensland University of Technology

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 5:53 pm

Somewhere in Iowa, volunteers are earning $900 apiece by providing blood samples after eating bits of a banana kissed with a curious tinge of orange.

It's the first human trial of a banana that's been genetically engineered to contain higher levels of beta carotene, the nutrient that our body converts into vitamin A. Researchers want to confirm that eating the fruit does, in fact, lead to higher vitamin A levels in the volunteers' blood.

The volunteers in Iowa may not realize it, but they're playing a small part in a story that spans the globe.

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The Salt
4:37 pm
Wed July 2, 2014

Big Bucks From Strawberry Genes Lead To Conflict At UC Davis

Originally published on Wed July 2, 2014 5:26 pm

Yesterday, we reported on a legal tussle over control of the country's top center of strawberry breeding, at the University of California, Davis. But there's a backstory to that battle. It involves the peculiar nature of the UC Davis strawberry program.

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The Salt
4:37 pm
Tue July 1, 2014

Breeding Battle Threatens Key Source Of California Strawberries

Originally published on Sun July 6, 2014 10:48 pm

In California, a legal skirmish has erupted over strawberries — or rather, over strawberry breeding.

To be absolutely precise, the battle is about strawberry breeding at the University of California, Davis. This is more important than it might sound. More than half of all strawberries in the supermarket trace their ancestry to breeding plots at UC Davis.

The strawberry breeders at UC Davis, who've led that program for decades, are leaving the university to carry on their work at a new private company.

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The Salt
4:49 pm
Tue June 24, 2014

'Natural' Food Sounds Good But Doesn't Mean Much

Advocates say consumers may assume that the "natural" label is the same as "organic."
iStockphoto

Originally published on Wed June 25, 2014 8:50 am

Some people have had it with "natural" food.

For fifteen years, Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumer Reports, has been pointing out that "natural" is just about the most misleading label that you'll ever see on a food package. Yet consumers still look for that word, food companies still love to use it and the Food and Drug Administration can't or won't define it.

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The Salt
3:19 pm
Fri June 20, 2014

From Organic Pioneers, Son Inherits Passion, Just Not For Farming

Writer Arlo Crawford (left) with his father, Jim Crawford, an elder statesman of the organic farming movement who dropped out of law school in 1972 to grow vegetables.
Melanie McLean/Courtesy of Henry Holt and Co.

Originally published on Wed June 25, 2014 11:00 am

If you're a listener, you may recognize the name New Morning Farm.

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The Salt
4:19 pm
Mon June 16, 2014

In The Making Of Megafarms, A Mixture Of Pride And Pain

When families give up farming and move away, it drains life out of small communities.
Dan Charles NPR

Originally published on Tue June 17, 2014 10:37 am

It seems that everybody, going back at least to Thomas Jefferson, loves small family farms.

Yet those beloved small farms are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Big farms are taking over.

According to the latest census of American agriculture, released this year, there are two million farms in America. But just four percent of those farms account for two-thirds of all agricultural production.

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The Salt
2:51 am
Mon June 16, 2014

Hunting For Alien Bug And Seed Invaders At Baltimore's Port

David Ng (right) and Amanda Furrow, Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialists, inspect wheat for insects and alien seeds at a port in Baltimore, Md.
Dan Charles NPR

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 8:33 am

Baltimore's seaport is a world of big, noisy steel machines: giant cargo ships, cranes and roaring trucks.

In the middle of this hubbub, David Ng, an agricultural specialist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, tries to find things that are small and alive: snails, moths and weed seeds of all sorts.

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The Salt
3:06 pm
Mon June 9, 2014

California Farmers Ask: Hey Buddy, Can You Spare Some Water?

Allen Peterson's farm, near the city of Turlock, Calif., lies next to a concrete-lined canal full of water. He's one of the lucky ones.
Dan Charles/NPR

Originally published on Mon June 16, 2014 8:29 am

Imagine if a gallon of milk cost $3 in your town, but 100 miles away it cost $100, or even $200.

Something similar is happening right now in California with water that farmers use to irrigate their crops. Some farmers are paying 50 or even 100 times more for that water than others who live just an hour's drive away.

The situation is provoking debate about whether water in California should move more freely, so that it can be sold to the highest bidder.

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The Salt
3:01 pm
Fri May 23, 2014

California's Drought Isn't Making Food Cost More. Here's Why

Farmworkers pull weeds from a field of lettuce near Gonzales, Calif. Salinas Valley farms like this one rely on wells, which haven't been affected much by the drought.
George Rose Getty Images

Originally published on Tue May 27, 2014 3:48 pm

The entire state of California is in a severe drought. Farmers and farmworkers are hurting.

You might expect this to cause food shortages and higher prices across the country. After all, California grows 95 percent of America's broccoli, 81 percent of its carrots and 99 percent of the country's artichokes, almonds and walnuts, among other foods.

Yet there's been no sign of a big price shock. What gives?

Here are three explanations.

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The Salt
2:19 am
Wed May 21, 2014

Double Trouble For Coffee: Drought And Disease Send Prices Up

A fully formed coffee berry, left, is shown next to a damaged coffee berry due to drought, at a coffee farm in Santo Antonio do Jardim, Brazil on Feb. 6.
Paulo Whitaker Reuters/Landov

Originally published on Wed May 21, 2014 8:29 am

If you're drinking a cup of coffee right now, treasure it. The global supply of coffee beans may soon shrink because of problems in coffee-growing areas of Brazil and Central America.

With supply threatened and demand strong, prices are taking flight. Wholesale coffee prices are up more than 60 percent since January — from $1.25 per pound of bulk Coffea arabica beans to $1.85 this week.

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The Salt
7:55 am
Thu May 8, 2014

Less Nutritious Grains May Be In Our Future

Wheat fields like this one could yield wheat with less zinc and iron in the future if they are exposed to higher levels of CO2, according to the journal Nature.
Zaharov Evgeniy iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon May 12, 2014 8:26 am

In the future, Earth's atmosphere is likely to include a whole lot more carbon dioxide. And many have been puzzling over what that may mean for the future of food crops. Now, scientists are reporting that some of the world's most important crops contain fewer crucial nutrients when they grow in such an environment.

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The Salt
1:54 pm
Tue May 6, 2014

No More Bromine: Coke, Pepsi Drop Controversial Ingredient

A Change.org petition labeled brominated vegetable oil, used in sports drinks like Gatorade, a "fire retardant chemical."
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed May 7, 2014 8:54 am

Chalk up another win for citizen activists. Coke and Pepsi announced this week that they will no longer use brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, in their soft drinks.

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The Salt
6:18 am
Sat May 3, 2014

Organic Farming Factions Spat Over Synthetic Substances

The National Organic Standards Board voted to no longer allow farmers to use the antibiotic streptomycin on organic apple and pear trees.
Jeff Haynes AFP/Getty Images

Here in the news biz, we rely on thumbnail descriptions, sparing you the details. We'll tell you, for instance, that organic farmers aren't allowed to use synthetic pesticides and factory-made fertilizer.

In general, that's true. But there's also a long list of pesky exceptions to the rule. And this week, a battle erupted over those exceptions: the synthetic or factory-made substances that organic farmers are still allowed to use because the farmers say they couldn't survive without them.

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The Salt
2:34 am
Mon April 28, 2014

Fire-Setting Ranchers Have Burning Desire To Save Tallgrass Prairie

A line of fire turns brown grass into black earth.
Dan Charles/NPR

Originally published on Thu May 1, 2014 11:02 am

For the past month, in part of eastern Kansas, the prairie has been burning, as it does almost every spring. On some days, you could look toward the horizon in any direction and see pillars of smoke. The plumes of pollution have traveled so far that they've violated limits for particulates or ozone in cities as far away as Lincoln, Neb.

But here's the twist: Environmentalists have come to celebrate those fires.

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The Salt
4:07 am
Sat April 19, 2014

Can Wal-Mart Really Make Organic Food Cheap For Everyone?

Wal-Mart is promising to drive down the prices of organic food by bringing in a new company, WildOats, to deliver a whole range of additional products.
Wal-Mart/Flickr

Originally published on Sat April 19, 2014 10:40 am

It could be another milestone in organic food's evolution from crunchy to commercial: Wal-Mart, the king of mass retailing, is promising to "drive down organic food prices" with a new line of organic food products. The new products will be at least 25 percent cheaper than organic food that's on Wal-Mart's shelves right now.

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The Salt
2:30 am
Thu April 17, 2014

Plant Breeders Release First 'Open Source Seeds'

Backers of the new Open Source Seed Initiative will pass out 29 new varieties of 14 different crops, including broccoli, carrots and kale, on Thursday.
J. Scott Applewhite AP

Originally published on Tue May 27, 2014 1:49 pm

A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They're releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new "open source pledge" that's intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely.

It's inspired by the example of open source software, which is freely available for anyone to use but cannot legally be converted into anyone's proprietary product.

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The Salt
5:25 pm
Mon April 7, 2014

Can Fish Farms Thrive In The USA?

Live tilapia are loaded into a truck bound for New York.
Dan Charles NPR

Originally published on

Why hasn't fish farming taken off in the United States?

It's certainly not for lack of demand for the fish. Slowly but surely, seafood that's grown in aquaculture is taking over the seafood section at your supermarket, and the vast majority is imported. The shrimp and tilapia typically come from warm-water ponds in southeast Asia and Latin America. Farmed salmon come from big net pens in the coastal waters of Norway or Chile.

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The Salt
1:14 pm
Thu April 3, 2014

Farmers Need To Get 'Climate Smart' To Prep For What's Ahead

Farmers participate in a CGIAR climate training workshop on how to interpret seasonal rainfall forecasts in Kaffrine, Senegal.
Courtesy of J. Hansen/CGIAR Climate

Originally published on Thu April 3, 2014 6:39 pm

The planet's top experts on global warming released their latest predictions this week for how rising temperatures will change our lives, and in particular, what they mean for the production of food.

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The Salt
11:45 am
Tue March 25, 2014

Food Giants Want 'Sustainable' Beef. But What Does That Mean?

Customers order food from a McDonald's restaurant in Des Plaines, Ill. The company has promised to start buying "verified sustainable beef" in 2016.
Scott Olson Getty Images

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 2:07 pm

McDonald's made a big green splash a few months ago by announcing that it will start buying "verified sustainable" beef in 2016.

A chorus of voices responded, "What's 'verified sustainable' beef?"

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The Salt
1:44 pm
Thu March 13, 2014

Top 5 Ways Asparagus, A Rite Of Spring, Can Still Surprise

From the botanical to the economic, spring's iconic vegetable still harbors surprises.
Sharon Mollerus/Flickr

Originally published on Thu March 13, 2014 5:35 pm

As the snow melts, even in Minnesota, and daylight lingers into evening, people who like to eat with the seasons know what's coming: asparagus.

"Asparagus means the beginning of spring. It's spring!" says Nora Pouillon, chef and founder of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. Later this month, she'll revise her menu, and it will certainly include asparagus with salmon, and asparagus soup.

It's an elegant vegetable, Pouillon says, and unique: "Sweet and bitter at the same time."

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The Salt
2:50 am
Tue March 4, 2014

In The New Globalized Diet, Wheat, Soy And Palm Oil Rule

The world is increasingly relying on a few dozen megacrops, like wheat and potatoes, for survival. Above, a wheat field in Arkansas.
Danny Johnston AP

Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 8:21 am

These days you can fly to far corners of the world and eat pretty much the same food you can get back home. There's pizza in China and sushi in Ethiopia.

A new scientific study shows that something similar is true of the crops that farmers grow. Increasingly, there's a standard global diet, and the human race is depending more and more on a handful of major crops for much of its food.

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The Salt
12:50 pm
Fri February 28, 2014

Why The 'Non-GMO' Label Is Organic's Frenemy

The increasingly successful movement to eliminate GMO crops from food is turning out to be organic's false friend.
Robyn Beck AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Tue March 4, 2014 10:29 am

It's easy to think of "organic" and "non-GMO" as the best buddies of food. They sit comfortably beside each other in the same grocery stores — most prominently, in Whole Foods Market. Culturally, they also seem to occupy the same space. Both reject aspects of mainstream industrial agriculture.

In fact, the increasingly successful movement to eliminate genetically modified crops — GMOs — from food is turning out to be organic's false friend. The non-GMO label has become a cheaper alternative to organic.

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The Salt
3:40 pm
Thu February 27, 2014

Chickens That Lay Organic Eggs Eat Imported Food, And It's Pricey

Empty shelves where eggs should be at a Whole Foods Market in Washington, D.C. The store blames increased demand for organic eggs.
Dan Charles NPR

Originally published on Tue March 4, 2014 10:26 am

The other morning, I found myself staring at something strange and unfamiliar: empty grocery shelves with the word "eggs" above them. The store, a Whole Foods Market in Washington, D.C., blamed, in another sign, the dearth on "increased demand for organic eggs."

This scene is unfolding in grocery stores across the country. But Whole Foods' sign wasn't telling the whole truth. Demand for organic eggs is indeed increasing, but production is also down.

The reason behind that shortfall highlights an increasingly acute problem in the organic industry.

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The Salt
2:40 am
Thu February 20, 2014

The System Supplying America's Chickens Pits Farmer Vs. Farmer

Benny Bunting, a farm advocate for Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, in front of one of his old chicken houses in Oak City, N.C.
Dan Charles NPR

Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 8:23 am

After reading Christopher Leonard's The Meat Racket, a broadside against the contract-farming system, I decided to take a closer look at it.

I drove to North Carolina and ended up in the kind of place that supplies practically all of our chickens: a metal-sided, 500-foot-long structure near the town of Fairmont.

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The Salt
2:44 am
Wed February 19, 2014

Is Tyson Foods' Chicken Empire A 'Meat Racket'?

Chickens gather around a feeder in a Tyson Foods poultry house in Washington County, Ark.
April L. Brown AP

Originally published on Mon February 24, 2014 1:38 pm

Christopher Leonard's new exposé on the chicken industry, The Meat Racket, doesn't devote much ink to the physical object on our plate, the chicken meat itself.

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The Salt
2:40 am
Tue February 4, 2014

How American Food Companies Go GMO-Free In A GMO World

Allen Williams grows corn and soybeans for Clarkson Grain, which has been selling GMO-free grain to Japan for years.
Dan Charles/NPR

Originally published on Thu February 6, 2014 7:12 am

Quite possibly, you've noticed some new food labels out there, like "Not made with genetically modified ingredients" or "GMO-free." You might have seen them on boxes of Cheerios, or on chicken meat. If you've shopped at Whole Foods, that retailer says it now sells more than 3,000 products that have been certified as "non-GMO."

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The Salt
11:07 am
Mon January 27, 2014

Soil, Weedkillers And GMOs: When Numbers Don't Tell The Whole Story

Farm statistics: usually illuminating ... occasionally misleading.
Seth Perlman AP

Originally published on Mon January 27, 2014 3:12 pm

I love numbers. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I think a good bar graph can be worth a thousand pictures.

But three times in the past few days, I've come across statistics in reputable-looking publications that made me stop and say, "Huh?"

I did some investigating so you don't have to. And indeed, the numbers don't quite tell the story that they purport to tell.

So here goes: My skeptical inquiry into statistics on herbicide use, soil erosion, and the production of fruits and nuts.

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The Salt
4:54 pm
Wed January 22, 2014

Should Farmers Give John Deere And Monsanto Their Data?

Adam Cole NPR

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 7:01 pm

Starting this year, farmers across the Midwest can sign up for a service that lets big agribusiness collect data from their farms, minute by minute, as they plant and harvest their crops.

Monsanto and John Deere are offering competing versions of this service. Both are promising to mine that data for tips that will put more money in farmers' pockets.

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The Salt
11:52 am
Fri January 10, 2014

A Green-Movement Website Shakes Up The Debate Over GMOs

After Grist's six-month-long series on genetically modified foods, some loyal readers accused the site of changing directions in the debate.
iStockphoto

A 26-part series on genetically modified food was not Nathanael Johnson's idea. And he didn't realize it would take six months, either.

Last year, Johnson was hired as the new food writer for Grist, a website for environmental news and opinion. Grist's editor, Scott Rosenberg, was waiting with an assignment: Dig into the controversy over GMOs.

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