Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture

Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture

Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture

Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture


This book is an interdisciplinary primer on critical thinking and effective action for the future of our global agrifood system, based on an understanding of the system's biological and sociocultural roots. Key components of the book are a thorough analysis of the assumptions underlying different perspectives on problems related to food and agriculture around the world and a discussion of alternative solutions. David Cleveland argues that combining selected aspects of small-scale traditional agriculture with modern scientific agriculture can help balance our biological need for food with its environmental impact--and continue to fulfill cultural, social, and psychological needs related to food.

Balancing on a Planet is based on Cleveland's research and engaging teaching about food and agriculture for more than three decades. It is a tool to help students, faculty, researchers, and interested readers understand debates about the current crisis and alternatives for the future.


My grandparents planted the hill behind their farmhouse in upstate New York, all the way to where the woods of maple, oak, and beech began, with dozens of apple varieties. Every fall the apples harvested from that orchard filled many barrels, and they were transformed into cider and apple pies all through the bitter winter. That was the story I was told. But my grandfather died in the woods above the orchard when a tree he and the hired men were cutting fell on him. My mother was a just a young girl, and my grandmother and her children struggled to keep up the farm, but as the children grew they were not much interested in farming, and most moved away to nearby towns. In my earliest boyhood memories of the orchard it was overgrown, thick with a jumble of native vegetation—blackberry brambles, elderberry trees, thistles, and grasses. By then the farm was becoming more of a memory than a real operation; there was not much left of its four barns, smokehouse, icehouse, dairy cattle, sheep, chickens, and fields of grain, hay, and tobacco.

In the summers I hacked paths through the dense vegetation under the wild, old unpruned apple trees, their branches broken by storms, some rotting and dying, others already dead, their dark limbs stark against the lush green of the hillside and the blue sky. I climbed the living apple trees too. My favorite was a Pound Sweet tree that produced huge golden-green apples full of sweet juice, a mid-nineteenth-century New England variety that I have never eaten or seen since.

I continued to visit the farm often after my family moved to the suburbs. Almost every drive back to visit brought new scenes of abandonment and decay of the agricultural landscape—barns and fields melting away to be replaced by housing developments. The stories my grandmother and great-aunts and great-uncles told of their own youth, growing up on farms, seemed more and more distant. I was witnessing the local reality of a massive national change in the structure of the U.S. agrifood system, a change that was happening in industrial countries around the world. From the first U.S. census of 1840 until 1935, the number of farms had been growing steadily, but with the rise of modern industrial agriculture, with its increased inputs and greater yields, small family farms were withering up and . . .

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