Dan Charles

In Arkansas, there is a kind of David vs. Goliath battle underway over a weedkiller.

On one side, there is the giant Monsanto Company. On the other, a committee of 18 people, mostly farmers and small-business owners, that regulates the use of pesticides in the state. It has banned Monsanto's latest way of killing weeds during the growing season.

Terry Fuller is on that committee. He never intended to pick a fight with a billion-dollar company. "I didn't feel like I was leading the charge," he says. "I felt like I was just trying to do my duty."

A tablespoon of soil contains billions of microscopic organisms. Life on Earth, especially the growing of food, depends on these microbes, but scientists don't even have names for most of them, much less a description.

That's changing, slowly, thanks to researchers like Noah Fierer, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Fierer think microbes have lived in obscurity for too long. "They do a lot of important things for us, directly or indirectly, and I hope they get the respect they deserve," he says.

For more than a century, corn has been the most widely planted crop in the country and a symbol of small-town America. Think of the musical Oklahoma, where the corn is as tall as an elephant's eye, or the film Field of Dreams, in which old-time baseball players silently emerge from a field of corn.

Even farmers are partial to corn, says Brent Gloy, who grows some himself, on a farm in Nebraska. (He also graduated from the University of Nebraska. You know, the Cornhuskers.)

Gerry Newman buys vanilla by the gallon. He's co-owner of Albemarle Baking Co., in Charlottesville, Va., and vanilla goes into everything from his cookies to pastry cream.

A few years ago, each 1-gallon bottle of organic, fair-trade vanilla set him back $64. Today, it's $245, more than Newman can comfortably stomach.

It's a global phenomenon, hitting pastry chefs and ice cream makers alike. Some have changed their recipes to use less vanilla. Newman has switched suppliers to find a cheaper product.

Dan Fazio says his phone is "ringing off the hook" these days.

He's executive director of WAFLA, an organization that helps fruit growers in Washington state find workers — and specifically, foreign workers who are allowed to enter the U.S. specifically as seasonal workers on farms.

Nobody loves pesticides, exactly. But one kind of pesticide, called neonicotinoids, is provoking a particularly bitter debate right now between environmentalists and farmers. The chemicals are highly toxic to bees. Some scientists think they are partly to blame for the decline in pollinators.

For the past year, the province of Ontario, in Canada, has responded to the controversy with a novel experiment. Ontario's government is asking farmers to prove that they actually need neonicotinoids, often called neonics. It turns out that "need" is a word that's hard to define.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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.

After years of bitter debate and legislative stalemate over the labeling of genetically modified ingredients, a compromise proposal sailed through Congress in breathtaking speed over the past three weeks.

The House of Representative passed the measure on Thursday with solid support from both Democrats and Republicans. It now goes to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign it.

One of the country's leading poultry companies, Perdue Farms, announced plans Monday to make both life and death a little easier for its chickens.

The changes are a break with current standard practices in the industry, and animal welfare groups are cheering.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms, says there's a simple motivation behind the new initiative. Consumers, especially millennials, "want to make sure that animals are raised in as caring a way as possible. With the least stress, the least discomfort."

The National Academy of Sciences — probably the country's most prestigious scientific group — has reaffirmed its judgment that GMOs are safe to eat. But the group's new report struck a different tone from previous ones, with much more space devoted to concerns about genetically modified foods, including social and economic ones.

Sugar, you might think, is just sugar, no matter where it comes from. But not anymore.

About half of all sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and the other half comes from sugar cane. Now, for the first time, sugar traders are treating these as two different commodities, with two different prices.

When Laura Dunn decided to make a film about America's foremost farmer-philosopher, Wendell Berry, she ran into one significant complication: He was willing to be interviewed, but he didn't want to go on-camera.

Berry, an old-fashioned man to his core, believes that experiencing the world through computer or movie screens diminishes literacy and deadens the imagination.

From McDonald's to Costco, Big Food has been declaring a shift to buying only cage-free eggs.

Pages