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Book notice: David A. Cleveland’s Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture (2014)

Friday, March 10, 2017 9:23
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(Before It's News)

Below is a substantial excerpt from the Introduction to David A. Cleveland’s Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014).* I hope it entices you to read the book, for while I have yet to finish, what I have read thus far and what I’ve peeked at in what’s to come, is verygood. In brief—and for what it’s worth—I highly recommend it. Cleveland is Professor of Environmental Studies and Geography at my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), although I’ve never taken a course from him nor do I personally know him. (I have left out the embedded references for the notes.)

“The mainstreamindustrial agrifood system has been remarkably successful over the long run in increasing food production at a rate faster than population growth, with the promise of continuing to do so in the immediate future. Supporters of this system believe that a globally integrated agrifood system and technological breakthroughs, for example in genetic engineering of crop plants or precision agriculture, are key to providing enough food for the future. Advocates of alternative agrifood systems have a different perspective—they argue that the demand can be lowered via better diets and reduction of waste, and that supply can be increased in more sustainable ways, with ecological agricultural based on traditional methods and more local control. But the issue is far from settled, and it hinges on disagreement over values as well as facts. A major problem from an alternative perspective is that the mainstream agrifood system monopolizes the bulk of research and development resources, leaving little opportunity for developing the kinds of solutions needed to save the planet, nurture communities, and increase human happiness.

Yet, regardless of one’s perspective, there is also shockingly bad news about every element of our agrifood systems—from the contamination of drinking water with agricultural chemicals to the deteriorating nutritional quality of the food supply and of child nutritional status, from the loss of crop genetic resources to loss of prime farmland. It seems that our agrifood system has been going in a direction that is producing at least as many problems as solutions. While those in power have demanded more food and higher yields to maintain and expand their power for millennia, pushing farmers into practices that were environmentally and socially destructive, their effects were mostly localized. Today, however, we have a global system, highly degraded environments, and more than seven billion humans to feed, with one billion of those chronically hungry.

In order to move toward a more desirable future, we need to understand the successes and failures of our and current agrifood systems and how they are linked in time and space. We also need to agree on how to define the future and on how we need to change our current system to get there. [….]

I have two main goals for this book. The first is to encourage critical thinking by explaining the concepts that I think are key to understanding the problems and potential solutions for the challenges facing our agrifood systems. This includes demonstrating how these concepts can be applied to specific situations so that readers can use them to analyze new situations and discuss their findings with others. [….] My secondmain goal is to demonstrate how I have applied these concepts in my own thinking about agrifood systems; I share what I have concluded about the problems and solutions based on my own research and values. These two goals are synergistic in that if I achieve the first, it means that readers will be able to independently critique my application of the concepts and my conclusions. [….] 

Cleveland proceeds to explain why and how critical thinking is essential to the goals of his book, one consequence of which is that he endeavors 

“to present as openly as possible [his] own conclusions and assumptions while also standing back and viewing them critically—that is, not becoming too attached to them and remaining open to new data, to alternative interpretations of data, and to appreciating different values. For example, my values include the assumptions that equity of resource access and use for all people is good and that interacting with the biophysical world in ways that maintain high biological and cultural diversity and ecosystem functioning is good, and my analysis of the data leads me to empirical assumptions that anthropogenic climate change is a real and immense threat  and that small-scale, resource-poor farmers’ behaviors are often base on insightful and efficacious understanding of their environment and crops. [….]

I have worked with farmers, gardeners, and scientists on research and development projects in northeast Ghana; in the Swabi valley in Pakistan; in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico; and in the United States, on the Zuni and Hopi reservations and in Santa Barbara County, California. In addition, I have spent shorter periods of time researching agrifood systems in other places, including Burkina Faso, Egypt, India, Syria, Mali, and China. I have interviewed and collected observational data, in addition to studying the research of others. [….]

One of my central conclusions is that small-scale, traditional, locally oriented, low –external-input agrifood systems are an important resource for the future. Much of the Earth’s remaining cultural and biological diversity is in the care of small-scale farmers. Many of the farmers I have worked with use knowledge and methods passed on through generations to grow locally adapted crop varieties, evaluating and incorporating new ideas from other farming traditions, from extension agents, and from scientists. I have celebrated with them their successful harvests and eaten special foods made from those harvests, rich with history, meaning, and flavor.

These farmers are often proud of what they do and know, and while they seek improvements in their farming and their lives in general, most do not want to abandon those things they value about their way of life. For example, in Oaxaca, Mexico, when farmers were asked as part of our research on crop diversity if they wanted their children to be maize and bean farmers like themselves, 91 percent said ‘yes.’ However, these same farmers see the world changing rapidly from the traditions of the many generations that preceded them—only 47 percent thought their children would actually grow up to be maize and bean farmers.

I have also seen farmers struggle to feed themselves and to understand the forces seemingly beyond their control that make the survival of their agrifood system almost impossible—population growth; environmental degradation; climate change; market fluctuations; privatization of water, land, and other resources; inappropriate development projects; and corrupt and incompetent governments and development organizations at home and abroad. [….]

While I see much potential in small-scale agriculture for solving the world food crises, I am also aware that small-scale farming is often physically and mentally grueling, and that most farmers are not well rewarded for their work. According to one estimate, the more than two billion people living on almost five hundred million small-scale (less than 2-ha) farms in the Third World include half of the world’s undernourished people and the majority living in absolute poverty. In short, I am not a nostalgic romantic. There is no going back to the small-scale agriculture of the past—doing so would neither be neither possible nor desirable. It was often a very hard life, and the world is a different place now, with more than seven billion humans to support. But simply continuing to promote the mainstream agrifood system is not the answer either.

I believe that an important aspect of creating alternatives for the future will be to combine small-scale, traditional agriculture with select aspects of modern, scientific agriculture in ways that provide solutions to the current food crisis—long-term solutions to balancing our biological need for food with our environmental impact in ways that also fulfill our cultural, social, and psychological needs. [....] … [T]here are usually trade-offs between what is possible and our goals for the future, and also between the different goals we have for the future. We need to minimize these trade-offs, to look for ways to make the system work better for everyone. We need to think critically, holistically, systematically, and compassionately. And we need to get to work right away. [....]


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