Part 8: Food Chains Revisited

In Part 5, I wrote,

Doing further harm to our understanding, he (Michael Pollan in “Omnivore’s Dilemma”) does not accurately report our connections and our relationships to ecosystems through food choices. He writes, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about the three principal food chains that sustain us today: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer.” Though sharing some similarities with food chains, the first two are at best methods of production with the third being methods of acquiring food. Claiming that hunter-gatherers are a food chain instead of a method of procuring food is an idea I hope readers will see as obviously misapplied.

When Pollan applies an ecological term like food chains to organic and industrial methods of food production, he is comparing plots of land under agriculture to nonagricultural food chains that occur inecosystems. In botanical agriculture, one can plant and harvest rice by hand (nonindustrial), then use pesticides and herbicides, and thereby not be organic. Those are aspects of production. They are not food chains. A cropped field is a very narrow view of the larger biological world. Food chains describe the interconnectedness of food energy flowing through species but farms are not the same as the ecosystems they are embedded within.

Here we continue with a description of what food chains are—a far cry from what Michael Pollan is telling you.Food chains describe the procession of species, one consuming another. They are complex biological relationships that never leave ecosystems. If a lion eats you, then you are part of her food chain, as iswhat you ate. When a sea lion consumes a fish, he occupies a place in a food chain. That place is called a trophic level. Below the sea lion in his food chain are fish who may have eaten smaller fish; that creates another place in the food chain, or trophic level. Smaller fish may have eaten phytoplankton or zooplankton, and zooplankton ate phytoplankton. All are trophic levels in a food chain.

The primary producers, the foundation of our and most species’ food chains, are able to convert organic matter, usually by photosynthesis, into useable food for primary consumers. In the oceans, zooplankton are primary consumers of phytoplankton, the primary producers. On land, examples of primary consumers are plant-eating insects and herbivores like deer. They are consuming the primary producers, plants. At every point in a food chain from phytoplankton, to zooplankton, to smaller fish, to larger fish, to sea lion, to shark, each step is a trophic level. Humans are capable of being primary, secondary, tertiary, and onward consumers. It can get more complex, and often does.

In the phytoplankton to sea lion food chain I just described, food chains can overlap into complex food webs. Food webs reflect how food chains overlap. Farmers try their best to keep their crops out of other species’ food chains and webs by applying herbicides and insecticides, planting genetically modified crops, or as we all want, use veganic practices to accomplish the same things. The farmers do this because they are responding to the ecosystem trying to take back habitat in which the crops are growing. In the book, This Is Hope, there is an illustrated figure of a food web consisting of many overlapping food chains.You need only follow a few connections to see how food chains must not be described as industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer.

A few species are able to chemosynthesize their nutrients in places like deep sea volcanic vents. It is important also to remember the decomposers, the fungi and bacteria that break down the detritus, the organic matter that remains after the deaths of other species, so it is available for uptake by others. This is nutrient recycling.

Vegans are primary consumers of primary producers, plants. Vegan human ecology means we eat low on the food chain. Many of us are vegan for environmental reasons. We see the fields where our food is grown as part of the ecosystems that also belong to other species, not just our own. We do not eat fish because they come from other species’ food chains and webs. They are impacted by our decision to eat fish or not and it has nothing to do with industrial, organic, or hunter-gatherer methods of production and procurement. We are most concerned about our ecosystem niche and how it affects all other species.

The closer we are to eating primary producers, plants, the more energy and resource-efficient we become. That is because energy is lost during respiration, metabolism, and locomotion. So the lion who ate you in my earlier example got only a fraction for the food value you consumed over your lifetime. Cattle eating corn return a small fraction of the corn’s energy and nutritional value as meat, as Pollan recognizes. If we graze millions of invasive cattle who displace wildlife, we cannot avoid profound outcomes for our human ecology, ecosystems, and wildlife management. When we eat lower in our vegan food chain, there is far less impact upon ecosystems than any case of animal agriculture Pollan envisions. Methods of production and procurement are important, but they do not inform us sufficiently about the most important decisions we must make about our food.

Next: Part 9/ Cross Pollination
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