Who is a Consumer? Food relationships and power: a look at human paradigms of consumption.

Mama D, Community Centred Knowledge

July, 2017

Whilst at school we learn about food webs and food chains defined as hierarchies of consumption. Each plant, then animal species obtains their nutrition through ascending layers of energy, becoming increasingly complex as it passes up the chain or across the web.

food web 1
Photo used under Creative Commons from orca_bc

Primary producer species, such as grass: wheat or sugar cane, trap the energy of the sun through photosynthesis and converts it to starch or sugar. A primary consumer, a herbivore, say a buffalo or a gorilla comes along and eats the grass and converts it into mainly protein and fat. A secondary consumer, a carnivore or omnivore, perhaps a tiger or a human comes along and eats the herbivore and also converts it into protein and fat and possibly also, an aptitude for speed or intelligence.

All the above may be feasted upon by consumers such as bacteria, fungi or viruses. Different food chains or webs are found in different ecologies and are fine tuned for positive feedback unless a natural disaster or humans affect their environments and in such cases the system tries to re-equilibrate, where possible.

Living species are part of a complex web of interactions in which there are multiple interdependencies and balances. A food chain is really just a model to understand the link between species of different ‘trophic levels’ (the distinct group of species with similar eating habits and position in a food chain). It helps explain biomass at the different trophic levels and the energy passing through the system.

Humans are unique in being a species which can consume at every level of the chain and who live in ways which distort the delicate balance of a food web. In fact we can upset several food webs existing in multiple biomes simultaneously and we attempt to live in such a way as to remove all potential predators which would otherwise keep our numbers in check. We also regularly decimate numbers within our own trophic level for no other purpose than, ultimately, greed: Greed in the service of more greed.

Yet humans studying the intentional production of biomass, specifically geared towards our consumption, carried out in human-constructed systems of production, refer to some humans in such a system as consumers and another set as producers. How much sense does this really make?

sovereign roots

African staples: photo by Mama D                      February, 2017 ©

In terms of promoting and encouraging our sustainable existence as one of the species of planet earth, how does such nomenclature assist? Does it promote a sense of balance between ourselves or even between ourselves and the food webs of which we are supposed to be a part?

Have we evolved beyond being a part of a planetary food web and if so, what are the consequences?

It would seem to be apparent that humans have replaced the food webs in which they were formerly part of, and dependent upon. We have constructed whole new systems, called agri or horti -culture or even agroforestry and forestry, fisheries and such like. We occupy them as if they were completely independent of any natural, earth based systems and we absolutely minimise our impact upon the ‘parallel’ natural ecosystems.

This is not however true. We have been evolving slowly and then at an increasingly rapid pace away from being a part of natural food webs. From forager, hunter and trapper, where we too were hunted we have become beings who create digitally automated systems to coerce nature into obeying our time frames, our sources of nutrients within massively altered environments and by using increasingly altered genetic material to wild type equivalents. We are doing so as if pushed by an imperative based upon rational and reasonable interpretations of data that are uncontested and for which we have received a global democratic mandate.

Such is the situation in which we find ourselves, in contradiction with nature, in contention within the sciences and in conflict with each other that we seek arguably more and more false solutions to the cul-de-sacs we head towards. We colonise other people’s lands, water and energy; intensify farming systems; seek to constrain and alter human diets and gradually demolish wildlife and wildspace. We rely on robots and nanobots and 3D technology for everyday consumption. We cultivate vertically, abandon rotations and grow underground.

Have nature’s tertiary consumers now become primary producers under an artificial sun?

Who then are the consumers we speak of who are now disempowered by supermarket and farmer alike to occupy niches of consumption more attuned to pocket than to participatory democracy?

In more human-centred systems, the world over, people struggle to retain ways of relating to earth in time honoured ways. Ways in which the pace of production is something the ecosystem has a chance of ’keeping up with’, ways in which the Earth is respected and engaged with as a being. These are ways in which farmers and agriculture are not labels to be studied but part of a way of being and inhabiting space. Will these ways whither in an age of technological dominance and the arrogance of a knowledge which is increasingly digitally generated?

Elder cultivating an allotment
Elder on Allotment. Photo by Mama D                                                                                      May 2016 ©

We have different options in the role of consumer: Maybe we need to reconsider our role as consumer in the widest sense of the word? To reconsider and reflect upon the way in which we consume all of earth’s resources in the name of production. Maybe we need to reconnect with natural ecosystems and respect those who still value this connection as well as their ways of being and doing in traditional ways? Maybe we need to rename ourselves and our sciences, our knowledge and rationalities to make transparent our agendas? Maybe the way forward is to co-produce more and study the food webs and food chains we used to be part of and reconsider what it is to be a balanced co-consumer, a part of and not separate from Mother Earth?

Published in Issue 7, 2017, Spring and Summer edition of ‘The Plot’, CFGN in print newsletter.

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