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.

All rights reserved.



(Why the Elephant is becoming obese whilst dying for sugar)

by Mama D

June 12, 2015

We are gathered here today…activists by definition because we have been called to witness the desecration of the countryside. Those could have been the words of the Rev Billy Talen who accompanies us on this protest march, in spirit and in song.

‘Reclaim our food system’, British Sugar factory April 29th 2015
British Sugar: the home of sugar beet processing

But I am here to clear the space for the Elephant, the invisible and so generally overlooked, yet heroic beast, whose size alone reflects the circumference of our activism at the margins and who demands to be taken notice of.

Who is the elephant?

We would not have the situation we have with uneconomically and unsustainably produced sugar beet were it not for its predecessor sugar cane: the tropical grass which beat the backs of my ancestors but which brought sweetness and heavy purses to the British aristocracy and burgeoning landed gentry, merchants and speculators. It also brought with it one of the most terrible tales of inhuman immorality and cruelty transacted between nations and with it a legacy of ill health and rotten teeth, not to mention the current burden of unfair taxes and subsidies upon a population too addicted to sweetness to bestir themselves to create sufficient momentum for change.

I speak of an elephant amongst us because all of us are here as activists, focusing upon a concept which celebrates and lobbies for the sovereignty of the food we gather, glean grow, process, distribute and eat. Yet we don’t always make the kind of connections we need to make that activism as complete or effective as it might be.

Prod the elephant.

Sugar beet symbolises a product of industrial agriculture in which a commodity is produced as an extraction of a root crop, grown upon the tired soil of increasingly enclosed land, to sell to a people increasingly alienated from that land to sustain their addiction. This addiction had already been established, and by not so sovereign means!

The uptake of beet production in the UK was an attempt by the agricultural and land-holding class of British farmers to capitalise upon a lucrative and expanding market for sugar already established by cane.

Sugar had long been traded to the UK. In the 1100s sugar had reached these shores, via traders from tropical Asia and Arabia who knew of supplies in Polynesia and environs, shipping small quantities, available only to the very privileged. It developed into a sought after commodity by wealthy speculators and by the Elizabethan age, such was its nature that with the penchant for sweetness established, the wealthy wanted more, in more regular supplies and then, when its price fell and it was available in abundance, sought to find ways of introducing its joys to the commoner, whose drudgery could be sugar-coated whilst his labour fortified by cheap but concealed calories.

Cane was king and its plantations ruled the sun soaked plains of regions within tropical dependencies in which free labour could be found, brought and beaten to work it. Sugar cane history is steeped in bloody exploitation, so it is no wonder that its sweetness and the headiness of the rum it is famous for, is also tinged with the bitterness of the sicknesses which it brings together with the depravations of the body and mind.

Slave plantation in Brazil

When war, which in itself was fuelled by the rivalry between powers for the control of trade routes and resources, meant that the interruption of the sweet toxin was to be put at risk, the possibility of supply substitution appeared through the commonBeta vulgaris, the sugar beet. Closely following successes in the researcher’s fields, it too was put to work at this time in British fields closer to home. This was in the era of tractors and mechanised farming. No longer requiring labour intensification, the beet was a popular alternative and substitute and its granulated whiteness an emblem of a recovery from the demerara dependency of far flung places increasingly seeking independence and autonomy.

The labourers of the tropics hopes were, however, like the cane itself, to be crushed. The wars between the Napoleonic and the second world wars did not succeed in beet replacing cane as a major source of ‘white gold’. The mainly East Anglian production of beet sugar, nevertheless, escalated, it is true:

“That first harvest and factory ‘campaign’ began a remarkable partnership between agriculture and industry that has endured throughout the 20th century. “

So extols the British Sugar Corporation. As beet sugar production in the UK rose and (expanded into vast areas of glasshouse tomato production) the British palate for sweetness and its industrial desire to process and industrialise consumption patterns meant that local demand for sugar also escalate.

What does this mean for us now? Nothing good on a dietary front.

Sugar calories are cheap calories and the use of sugar in its various forms hallmarks the foodstuffs, sweet and savoury, consumed by the working classes. No longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy, the monied classes eschew this now vulgar carbohydrate in favour of slow and less refined ‘real foods’. These are ‘good foods’ healthy, slowly produced and artisanal and less easily attainable than the very prevalent sucrose, fructose or glucose sugar infused commodities, which now make up a significant part of what are termed ‘fast’ or ‘junk’ consumables. The processed snacks and ‘not-real’ foods are favoured by the sectors of the population less well endowed with surplus cash, education/information or time to make better food choices.

But we are hurting our own futures because it is the young who are marketed the bulk of the saccharine and processed diet. It is also the young in the tropics who are belaboured with the arduous production of the (still) over-produced cane and yet again it is the young who are first affected by the nitrogen pollution of our water, leached out from the over-fertilised soil by over-subsidised beet farmers.


Sugar is no longer sweet.

We also have to take pause and reflect upon the waves of industrialisation in the west that the expansion of the cruel production of cane meant for tropical countries such as Santa Domingo.

Worth watching in this respect is the paradoxical tale of the Spanish Priest, son of Jam producer, Hartley’s, taking up the case of the modern cane slavery of Haitians: The Price of Sugar.

It is this industrialisation which marks the inception of the super-economies of the transnational corporations that have their roots in this era of expansionism. Sugar as fuel indeed and not just bio-fuel.

Some points to take away about sugar production and consumption are:

  • Commercial sugar beet production could only compete with its more cheaply produced rival, cane, through the use of government subsidies.
  • It remains in this rut, exhaustive of both soil and state in production AND in terms of its effects on the population, also exhaustive of the state in terms of the demands obesity places on the (dwindling) National Health Service.
  • Sugar beet feeds humans and cattle. There is no rum with sugar beet! It is neither so versatile nor alluring!
  • Big Pharma is the enemy of Small Farmer. The latter produces healthy food on a scale that actually feeds many more people nutritiously and helps them avoid Big Medicine. Small Farmer subsidises State Health Systems internationally but goes unrewarded.
  • The unhealthy diet enabled by gross overproduction of sugar where the true cost of production is discounted by people’s (loss of) lives and loss of livelihoods is contributing to acid producing, cancer-inviting, bone-deteriorating, highly processed snack foods that are changing the dietary habits of the worthy poor in ways that we have yet to fully understand the impact of.
  • With the concurrent diminution in supply of healthy food, on account of the raped soil and spread of industrial agriculture, philosophical constructs which divide and rule the world’s poor take root allowing spaces for the concentrated effect of the super-rich. What kind of farming system are we taking part in creating and supporting?

Reading material






First posted on CFGN on 6th June 2015 by Mama D