David Cleveland

Dr. David Cleveland is a human ecologist and a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He graduated from the University of California–Berkeley with a bachelor’s in English Literature. He earned an M.S. in Genetics and a Ph.D in ecological anthropology at the University of Arizona.

Experiencing a famine is generally not a part of a graduate student’s dissertation research, but during David Cleveland’s research with the Kusasi of northeast Ghana, both harvest seasons were considered famines. “It was very painful to be there and be a part of that community and basically be helpless,” he said. “In a way, that experience motivated much of my research since then.” Today, Cleveland studies and teaches about sustainable agrifood systems and their role in responding to climate change, resource scarcities, new technologies, and demands for social justice.

Finding a more sustainable way of feeding the planet

Cleveland grew up on a farm and always had an interest in nature and food. As a college student though, all he knew for sure was that he wanted to do something that he was passionate about. Soon after graduating from the University of California-Berkeley, he stumbled upon an advertisement for positions teaching refugee students in Zambia and jumped at the chance to travel and gain new perspectives. After a year teaching there, he spent another year traveling in Africa and Asia interacting with local communities and learning about the different ways people grow food and nourish themselves.

Upon his return to the United States, Cleveland knew he wanted to combine the social and natural sciences in an attempt to understand the intersection food and agriculture. His doctoral field work in the farming village in northeast Ghana focused on the relationship between population and agriculture. He worked with the local farmers to understand why they often didn’t have enough food, despite their hard work and impressive farming skills. He found that increasing birth rates were a rational response to increasing migration and the breakdown of traditional social structures resulting from colonialism and neocolonialism. However, increasing population densities also fueled environmental degradation, and in combination with a changing climate, this often meant food shortages. Cleveland has since dedicated his career to research and teaching about how to sustainably feed the planet, including extended field work with farmers in Mexico, in the Hopi and Zuni communities of the southwest U.S., and in Santa Barbara County, California.

A key part of his research, carried out with his wife and colleague Daniela Soleri, has been on how local farmers and scientists can communicate and collaborate to find integrated solutions. Cleveland says this was in response to their observation that “It is all too common for scientists to unfairly dismiss local knowledge, and for inappropriate solutions to be promoted for local farmers.” After working with farmers in a number of different communities around the world, and helping them to express their knowledge and values in ways that scientists can understand, they have documented how farmer and scientist knowledge is similar, as well as different, as a foundation for farmer-scientist collaboration.

Food and climate change

One focus of Cleveland’s current research is the relationship between food production, nutrition, and climate. He explains, “Because the food system contributes such a large proportion of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it has a major role to play in mitigating climate change.” Cleveland believes the key to understanding the relationship between the food and climate systems is appreciating the need to rapidly reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Reducing emissions and making more food and agricultural resources available to the several billions of people without adequate food are issues that are tied together. “Food justice and climate justice are inseparable,” Cleveland states, “and we need to work for both simultaneously.”

This will require rethinking the supply-side strategy of increasing food production to keep up with demand, which has dominated our approach to agriculture for thousands of years. “That means that we need to find a way to not only increase efficiency, as in “green growth,” but actually to reduce consumption and physical growth,” he asserts. Changing diets can be key, and can also help to reduce the large proportion of food that is wasted. Cleveland notes that unlike more popular mitigation strategies, diet change doesn’t require new technology and infrastructure, and has the potential to reduce overall consumption and emissions relatively rapidly.

By reducing the intake of animal foods, highly processed foods, and resource intensive foods (like hothouse tomatoes and air transported fruit), and increasing foods like whole grains and locally grown, fresh produce, Cleveland believes we can reduce our net demand for food and the resources needed to grow, deliver and process it. His research and that of others suggests that changing diets is one way to have a positive environmental impact that can also have a positive health impact and lead to reduced health care costs and the additional emissions those generate. 

The challenge is that it requires people to change the way they think about and value food, and necessitates that the food system change what it produces. “It is important to try and understand how the positive side of diet change can be presented,” he explains, “so that people can see that this kind of change could result in a higher quality of life, not only for future generations and people around the world, but for them very personally.”

Science in a social context

Cleveland believes a large hurdle for making the kinds of changes needed is that science is often communicated as an objective pursuit of the “truth,” disconnected from our everyday lives. He believes that by presenting science in this way, especially during elementary and high school, the general public never learns how to appreciate the pragmatic value of science as a process and not as a truth claim, and therefore discourages public participation in discussions about policy based on science, and in applying science to our lives.

To Cleveland, science is not the pursuit of “truth,” but of good models for objectively understanding the biophysical and social world, albeit influenced by unique individual traits and social contexts.  The goal of Cleveland’s 2014 book, Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture, is to empower readers to contribute to solving the food crisis by helping them analyze theories, data, and values from different perspectives, in order to ask better questions, find more useful answers, and to participate in discussion and decision-making more effectively. This includes analyzing assumptions about human nature, technology, and natural resources underlying different perspectives on our agrifood system, as well as initiating a discussion of alternatives.

He reflects that this approach “gives you a sense of relativity—of knowing that there’s no absolute truth. You have to walk lightly and not become too attached to any one idea, because that idea could change. We have to be really engaged in the process of discovery but not attached to a specific result. At the same time, we have to openly discuss the values underlying our goals for the future in order to agree at some level on common strategies for reaching those goals—ultimately that is the global level.”

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