Dan Charles | KNKX

Dan Charles

Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without a big food company making promises to deliver products from green, sustainable farms. Turning those promises into reality, though, can be complicated.

Farming has destroyed a lot of the rich soil of America's Midwestern prairie. A team of scientists just came up with a staggering new estimate for just how much has disappeared.

The most fertile topsoil is entirely gone from a third of all the land devoted to growing crops across the upper Midwest, the scientists say. Some of their colleagues, however, remain skeptical about the methods that produced this result.

Updated on March 10th at 12:30 p.m. ET

Facing the rising threat of wildfire and extreme drought, Flagstaff, Ariz., unveiled an ambitious effort two years ago to cut the heat-trapping emissions that drive climate change.

Back in the spring, farmers who raise pigs were in a panic. Many major customers, such as food service companies that supply restaurants, weren't buying pork. Prices had fallen sharply. Some hog farmers had no place to ship their animals because so many workers in pork processing plants got sick from COVID-19.

"Our folks need a lifeline," said Nick Giordano, top lobbyist for the National Pork Producers Council, on a call with journalists in May. "Unless there is a large cash infusion from the federal government, we're going to lose a lot of producers."

Hundreds of native North American plants, often dismissed as weeds, deserve a lot more respect, according to a new study. These plants, distant cousins of foods like cranberries and pumpkins, actually represent a botanical treasure now facing increased threat from climate change, habitat loss and invasive species.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Obama Cabinet veteran and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, a source familiar with transition discussions confirmed to NPR.

Vilsack returns to an agency he helmed for eight years as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary.

Just over a decade ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation declared war on legislation to slow down global warming. The organization, a lobbying powerhouse, argued that a "cap-and-trade" proposal making its way through Congress would make fuel and fertilizer more expensive and put farmers out of business.

Some of the most popular products of biotechnology — corn and cotton plants that have been genetically modified to fend off insects — are no longer offering the same protection from those bugs. Scientists say that the problem results from farmers overusing the crops, and are pushing for new regulations.

These crops were the original genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. They weren't the first ones invented, but they were the first to be widely embraced by farmers, starting in the late 1990s.

The Trump administration has been celebrating an initiative that buys food from farmers and distributes it through charitable organizations such as food banks. "I'm proud to announce that we will provide an additional $1 billion to fund the Farmers to Families Food Box program. It's worked out so well," President Trump told a cheering crowd on Aug. 24 in North Carolina.

More than 40 years ago, in Nigeria, a young scientist named Rattan Lal encountered an idea that changed his life — and led, eventually, to global recognition and a worldwide movement to protect the planet's soil.

Lal was fresh out of graduate school, recruited to join the newly established International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, and given an assignment that, in hindsight, seems ridiculous in its ambition. "I was 25 years old, in charge of a lab, given the mandate of improving quality and quantity of food production in the tropics!" Lal says.

For a glimpse of what could happen to a trillion dollars worth of American farmland, meet Ray Williams.

He's a lawyer-turned-farmer, growing organic grain and feeding young cows on 3,000 acres in northeastern Oregon. Last year, he and his brother Tom decided that they were getting too old for the long hours and hard work.

"We told our clients, you don't want to rely on senior citizens for your high quality organic products. Trust me on this!" says Williams, age 68.

A month ago, America's pork farmers were in crisis. About 40 percent of the country's pork plants were shut down because they had become hot spots of coronavirus infection.

Millions of newly impoverished people are turning to the charitable organizations known as food banks. Mile-long lines of cars, waiting for bags of free food, have become one of the most striking images of the current economic crisis. Donations are up, too, including from a new billion-dollar government effort called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Tyson Foods, one of the biggest meat producers in the U.S., is suspending work at its pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Officials in Black Hawk County, where the plant is located, say at least 150 people with close connections to the plant have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Iowa Public Radio.

Paul TenHaken, the 42-year-old mayor of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said it wasn't easy getting the world's top pork producer to shut down one of its biggest plants.

"It was tense," TenHaken said. "You know, you shut down a plant like that, it has a pretty big impact on the food supply. So we weren't taking this lightly, making this request."

Several meat processing plants around the U.S. are sitting idle this week because workers have been infected with the coronavirus. Tyson Foods, one of the country's biggest meat processors, says it suspended operations at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers got sick with COVID-19. National Beef Packing stopped slaughtering cattle at another Iowa plant, and JBS USA shut down work at a beef plant in Pennsylvania.

As Americans scattered to the privacy of their homes this week to avoid spreading the coronavirus, the opposite scene was playing out in the Mexican city of Monterrey.

A thousand or more young men arrived in the city, as they do most weeks of the year, filling up the cheap hotels, standing in long lines at the U.S. Consulate to pick up special H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers, then gathering in a big park to board buses bound for farms in the United States.

Parker Smith grows corn and soybeans on land near Champaign, Ill., together with his father and uncle. But Smith Farms doesn't own most of the land it uses. "About 75 percent of what we farm is rented ground," he says.

This is common. Across the Midwest, about half of all the farmland is owned by landlords who live somewhere else. Farmers compete to rent that land. "There's only so much ground, and most of the farmers out there want more, so obviously it gets pretty competitive," Smith says.

The world's most remarkable date palm trees might not exist if Sarah Sallon hadn't gotten sick while working as a doctor in India in 1986. Antibiotics didn't help. What cured here, she thinks, were some traditional herbal remedies.

"It was just amazing. It was so incredible," she says. "And then I got very interested. There's nothing like a doctor cured of their problem to get them interested in something."

Every summer for the past three years, the phones have been ringing like crazy in the Office of the Indiana State Chemist. Farmers and homeowners were calling, complaining that their soybean fields or tomato plants looked sick, with curled-up leaves. They suspected pesticides from nearby farms — a kind of chemical hit-and-run.

It was up to investigators like Andy Roth to find the true culprit.

For Dan Younggren, who grows sugar beets in the northwest corner of Minnesota, 2019 was a year of plagues.

First came the water. "Ten inches, up to almost 20 inches of rain," Younggren says. The fields in his region were so wet that farmers couldn't work in them.

On a soggy field in eastern North Carolina, Jason Tew and his crew of loggers are cutting trees and sorting logs into piles based on their size and the type of wood. There's a lot of pine, but also hardwoods: poplar, sweet gum, elm and oak. Some piles will go for making plywood; some will become absorbent fiber in baby diapers.

The least valuable pile is full of small hardwood tree limbs. "It's basically trash," Tew says. "We would have normally hauled that back in the woods and just left it."

There's new evidence that a widely used family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, already controversial because they can be harmful to pollinators, could be risky for insects and fish that live in water, too.

The evidence comes from Lake Shinji, which lies near Japan's coast, next to the Sea of Japan.

Masumi Yamamuro, a scientist with the Geological Survey of Japan, says the lake is famous for its views of the setting sun. "It's amazingly beautiful," she says.

Foods go in and out of style. Few of them, though, have gone through as dramatic a renaissance in their reputation as Brussels sprouts.

For many years, they were scorned. Even Steve Bontadelli admits it, and he makes his living growing them. "A lot of people of my generation hated them," he says. "Their moms boiled them and made them even stinkier."

Every year, the company Ingredion buys millions of tons of corn and cassava from farmers and turns them into starches and sugars that go into foods such as soft drinks, yogurt and frozen meals.

Lots of things can go wrong along the way. Weather can destroy crops. Machinery can break.

Lately, though, Ingredion's top executives have been worried about a new kind of risk: what might happen on a hotter planet.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a trip to Europe this week but was followed by allegations that he and other American diplomats helped to try to strong-arm Ukraine into aiding President Trump's reelection campaign.

At a public meeting in Athens on Saturday, a Greek journalist asked Pompeo about the Ukraine-related investigation back home. Pompeo seemed exasperated by the question. "This is what's wrong, when the world doesn't focus on the things that matter ... and instead, you get caught up in a silly gotcha game," he said.

In the struggle to end global warming, one community in central Pennsylvania is having remarkable success. It's growing, with tens of thousands of people, yet its greenhouse emissions have been dropping dramatically.

Perhaps most amazing: Those reductions have paid for themselves.

This is not your typical town — it's Penn State University. But in many ways, it's just like any other town or small city.

Something odd is happening to streams and rivers on the high plains of Kansas and Colorado. Some have disappeared.

"We would go and visit these streams, and in many cases it's like a dirt bike channel. It's no longer functioning as a stream," says Joshuah Perkin, a biologist at Texas A&M University who studies the fish that live in these streams.

For the first time in half a century, the U.S. government just revised the way that it inspects pork slaughterhouses. The change has been long in coming. It's been debated, and even tried out at pilot plants, for the past 20 years. It gives pork companies themselves a bigger role in the inspection process. Critics call it privatization.

Walking around a park near Allentown, Pa., I didn't even notice the bugs at first. Then Heather Leach arrived. She's an insect expert from Penn State University.

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