Tagged: Dan Charles

Diversity and homogeneity in agriculture around the world

sunflower farm

Aerial view of a sunflower farm. Photo by Flickr user Milan Andric [mandric], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week NPR’s Dan Charles reported on rising uniformity in world agriculture. As he details,

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….

[Authors of a new study] uncovered two big trends.

The first: “Hey, actually, there’s places where diets are diversifying, where they’re adding crops,” says [researcher Colin] Khoury.

In parts of Asia, such as China, rice is a declining portion of the average person’s diet as they add other foods that are now more available. In the U.S., meanwhile, people are eating more imported foods, like mangoes and coconut water.

But here’s the second discovery: Those bigger menus of food also are getting more and more similar to each other, from Nanjing to Nairobi. Everybody is relying more and more heavily on a few dozen global megafoods.

Many of those foods are part of what you’d call a standard Western diet, including wheat, potatoes and dairy. But other megacrops come from the tropics, such as palm oil….

Smaller crops, meanwhile, are getting pushed aside. Sorghum and millet, for instance, are grown quite widely around the world, but they’re losing out to corn and soybeans. Other small crops that you only find in certain areas could disappear altogether.

Check out audio and text versions of the story (as well as links) here.

Where are the organic eggs?

Organic Eggs

Photo by Flickr user Dave Hunt [davehunt82], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday my favorite NPR reporter, Dan Charles, took a look at the organic egg industry. More specifically, he provided the answer to a question recently posed in the face of some empty shelves at a Whole Foods: where are the organic eggs? As he describes,

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.

Most chickens eat feed made from ground-up corn and soybeans, but America’s farmers are not growing enough organic corn and soybeans — especially soybeans — to feed the country’s organic animals….

It’s led to the following situation, which on the face of it seems bizarre. The U.S., a soybean superpower, ships conventional soybeans all over the world to feed animals in places like China. Meanwhile, in China, farmers are growing organic soybeans and sending them here.

Those expensive, imported soybeans are one of the reasons some domestic farmers have suspended organic egg production. The full story, which considers why Chinese rather than US farmers are growing organic soybeans for our egg layers, is worth a read (or listen). Find it here.

NPR’s Dan Charles on Grist’s GMO reporting

GMO Kill Gene

An example of the sort of issue Johnson has examined in his work. Image by ALT Headlines via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

One of my favorite NPR reporters, Dan Charles, recently penned a piece about Grist’s coverage of genetically modified organisms. As he describes,

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.

GMOs “were a unique problem for us,” says Rosenberg. On the one hand, most of Grist’s readers and supporters despise GMOs, seeing them as a tool of corporate agribusiness and chemical-dependent farming.

On the other hand, says Rosenberg, he’d been struck by the passion of people who defended this technology, especially scientists. It convinced him that the issue deserved a fresh look.

“When I met Nathanael, I thought, ‘This is a writer who could do this really well,’ ” recalls Rosenberg.

For the full essay, including links to Johnson’s work, head here.

Some pork producers wasting antibiotics

A few piglets

Photo by Flickr user Edmund Yeo, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

NPR’s Dan Charles has filed a number of thoughtful reports on modern agriculture, including the use of antibiotics in factory farming of livestock. Another one hit the airwaves and web yesterday:

It’s one of the most controversial practices in agriculture: feeding small amounts of antibiotics to animals in order to make them grow faster.

But what if the drugs don’t even work very well?

There’s some good evidence that they don’t, at least in pigs. They used to deliver a boost in growth, but that effect has disappeared in recent years or declined greatly.

The reason for this is interesting and even paradoxical.

Head here for the full audio and text versions of the story.

What “cage-free” means for egg-laying chickens

365 Cage Free Eggs

Photo by Michael Carian [carianoff] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On the heels of my post yesterday—about whether organic eggs produced on an industrial scale are quite a pastoral as you might think—comes a related story from NPR’s Dan Charles. In it, he takes us inside a brand-new, cage-free egg facility. As he describes,

Inside one of those houses, 18,000 chickens are milling around on the floor. Some are perched on metal bars. A few are madly pecking away at the plastic covers on my shoes….

These chickens aren’t free-range or organic; they don’t go outside. But they do get to roam around inside the house, which makes them cage-free.

Although the animals aren’t confined to insanely small battery cages stacked on top of one another, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean things are all hunky-dory. Besides never going outdoors,

in cage-free systems, chicken litter builds up on the floor, so chickens scratch around and dust-bathe [a natural chicken behavior] in their own waste….

[In preliminary results from a Michigan State study,] hens in cages were cleaner, but cage-free chickens kept more of their feathers. Cage-free hens may have had more freedom, but twice as many of them died during the year.

Production of cage-free eggs is growing in response to corporate and consumer demand, but buyer beware: the happy-sounding term “cage-free” is so far removed from more humane, environmentally sustainable, and healthful ways to raise egg-laying hens as to be hysterically funny if it weren’t so infuriating. Find the audio and text versions of Charles’s informative story here. For egg options better than simply cage-free, check out yesterday’s post along with the Organic Egg Scorecard from The Cornucopia Institute.

A cleaner fish farm?

Salmon farm

A salmon farm in the Bay of Fundy. Photo by Leigh Angel [revafisheye] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Last Thursday, NPR ran a very interesting story from Dan Charles that featured the efforts of Thierry Chopin, a Canadian marine biologist, to develop fish farms that are less polluting that most. As Charles reports,

[Chopin’s] approach involves creating a whole ecosystem around a fish farm, so the waste generated by the salmon gets taken up by other valuable seafood commodities, like shellfish and kelp….

[T]here are rafts made of black PVC piping, sticking out of the water like catwalks. They are home to cultivated seaweeds and mussels — species that thrive on fish waste.

“What we are doing is nothing more than recycling the nutrients,” Chopin explains. “Instead of looking at them as waste, we look at them as nutrients for the next species.”

One of the best things about the story is Charles’ nuanced approach—he’s thoughtful enough not to present Chopin’s work as the solution to all the environmental downsides of farmed fish. As Charles describes, Chopin’s “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture”

addresses the mostly localized problem of water pollution, but it doesn’t address other problems with aquaculture: the spread of fish parasites, the escape of caged salmon, or — worst of all — the need to harvest wild fish to feed the salmon. That’s a big problem for inland aquaculture as well.

The full story is worth checking out; find both audio and text versions here.

One bean to rule them all


Photo by Hector Garcia via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The start of NPR’s special series on coffee yesterday couldn’t have been more timely for me, since I just got back from a trip that included several days in Seattle. (For the record, I walked past but not into the first Starbucks; more on my West coast trip coming soon.)

As science reporter Dan Charles describes,

Coffee is more than a drink. For many of us — OK, for me — it’s woven into the fabric of every day.

It also connects us to far corners of the globe.

For instance, every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of , a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, N.C., and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.

On any random day, that truck could bring “10 bags from a farm in El Salvador; 20 bags from a cooperative in Burundi; two bags of a special coffee from Guatemala,” says Kim Elena Ionescu, one of the coffee buyers for Counter Culture Coffee. She travels the world, visiting coffee farms and deciding which beans the company will buy.

Find the first installment (audio, text, photos) here, this morning’s entry here, and a lovely NPR coffee quiz here. For the rest of the series rolling out in the next day or so, keep an eye on NPR’s food blog, The Salt.