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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.

For all the international furor over genetically modified food, or GMOs, the biotech industry has really only managed to put a few foreign genes into food crops.

The first of these genes — actually, a small family of similar genes — came from a kind of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Those genes make plants poisonous to certain insect pests.

No chemical used by farmers, it seems, gets more attention than glyphosate, also known by its trade name, Roundup. That's mainly because it is a cornerstone of the shift to genetically modified crops, many of which have been modified to tolerate glyphosate. This, in turn, persuaded farmers to rely on this chemical for easy control of their weeds. (Easy, at least, until weeds evolved to become immune to glyphosate, but that's a different story.)

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Like so many brilliant innovations, the idea seems obvious in hindsight. Just combine college, coffee, and chemical engineering. Of course!

In the ferocious, sprawling brawl over genetically modified crops, one particular question seems like it should have a simple factual answer: Did those crops lead to more use of pesticides, or less?

Sadly, there's no simple answer.

It's been four years since scientists first started accusing a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, of killing bees. These pesticides are used as seed coatings on most corn and soybean seeds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture took a largely symbolic step to help struggling dairy farmers this week. It announced that it will buy $20 million worth of cheese and give it away to food banks. The USDA is doing this, it says, to help "reduce a cheese surplus that is at a 30-year high."

The nation's first "soda tax" on sugar-sweetened beverages, which went into effect in Berkeley, Calif., last year, appears to be working.

According to a new study, consumption of sugary drinks — at least in some neighborhoods — is down by a whopping 20 percent.

Milk prices are in the tank. You may not have noticed this, since prices in the supermarket have fallen only slightly. But on the farm, it's dramatic. Dairy farmers are getting about 20 percent less for their milk than they did last year; 40 percent less than when milk prices hit an all-time peak two years ago.

"We're losing money," says Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairyman's Association. In Europe and Australia, dairy farmers have taken to the streets to protest their plight.

I did a little experiment the other day. I stood outside a Whole Foods Market in Washington, D.C., with two cartons of large brown eggs. One carton had the words "Non-GMO Project Verified" on it, with a little orange butterfly. It also said cage-free. The other carton had a different label; a green and white circle with the words "USDA Organic." One other crucial difference: the organic carton cost 50 cents more.

I asked shoppers which carton they would buy.

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