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.

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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?

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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.

A Synchrony of Organic Interdependent Livity: S.O.I.L

Women from the Mbini Self-Help Group showing off the fields

A SYNCHRONY OF ORGANIC INTERDEPENDENT LIVITY: S.O.I.L.

by Mama D, Community Centred Knowledge @IndigenousKnow

I am a mother and, in relative terms, recently sourced from the African continent. As a woman, and an African, I am present, but without voice. Most of the time, unseen and unheard. Yet, my essential being represents that which gives, over eternities, but remains unacknowledged. It is also that for which there is no gratitude shown. Just like the soil we walk upon. Such things have consequences.

The first year of the ‘United Nations Decade for People of African Descent’ (2015-2024), is also the ‘United Nations Year of the Soil’ (2015).

I hold this not to be a co-incidence.

Women from the Mbini Self-Help Group showing off the fields

These two subjects of United Nations recognition: African people and the soils of Earth, are the twin, invisible presences at the root of much of the world’s prosperity.

There is reason for saying this. The labour and sacrifices of Africans have both directly and indirectly enabled, and fuelled, the productivity of industrial growth and the associated western knowledge revolutions.

For the most part, the same can be said of the poorly understood soil. It has been and continues to be exploited, unreasonably to the point of dissolution and in places, complete disappearance. What shall we call this? Pedocide? Lithocide?

Despite this, global politics continues to take both for granted. Each remains understated as an icon of what is good in the world. The People and produce of Africa, and the soils of the world, continue to contribute to global well-being. It ought to be a matter of global shame that these contributions are still insufficiently charted, documented or taught to the masses.

Such poor recording has led to a great deal of misunderstanding amongst the general populace about the critical importance of a vibrant African people or the healthy soil.

In the absence of knowledge, ignorance festers!

Who, then, will see cause to take steps to address their misinformation? Who will seek out appropriate knowledge and action? Are we too embattled by our own blindness to see our way out of the disasters we thereby create?

This is a pertinent question if we wish to stem the collapse of global well-being as we currently know it.

I am not being dramatic. The language concerning soil loss as 2015 loomed and began has been dramatic. This piece is too short for me to repeat it here.

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If we are restless at the mention of food security and climate change, then we had better be fretful of a scenario of disappearing soils. We might well worry also at the loss of the traditional expertise to manage such fragile landscapes. It is especially so where it can be demonstrated that these tradition soil ‘husbandmen’ have proven resilient under oppressive circumstances.

We may be aware of roving corporate capitalism, looking for ever new opportunities to exploit and ravage land and people. La Via Campensina holds a torch for peasant resistances in ‘Latin’ America, Vandana Shiva lights up radicalism in India; for African people during this decade who will ignite the imagination of the world, one which connects all of the indigenous peoples of the globe? In this respect, African growers must be encouraged to share their ways of stewarding the land and their relationship with the soil lore with each other and with growers everywhere and their insights and experiences given recognition for life-affirming connections to be restored. It is good that African Soil Stories form a foundation for the African Story.

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There is ancestral, intuitive knowledge, that the clay of my being, so close in colouring to that of the Earth, is a living, walking, and animated being. It is for only a span of a lifetime separated from the dust of the Earth, to perform a sacred, stewardship role.

I am as the soil on the massive surface of this vast organic, living entity. Like a protective cover for a good 30 per cent of the world’s surface. I am a kin to this medium – which ranges, in depth, from a few crumbs – to a few metres. I represent both the living, pulsating potential as well as the parent body that feeds much of what is yielded by the land.

Whist I attended my inner-city, secondary school, we were taught, in science, that soil was one of those things that should be listed under non-living materials.

Soil was to be thought of as dead, inanimate, made from rock, substantially, and so not a thing which breathed, ate, moved or reproduced. How wrong they were!

I felt this in my very bones. From childhood, I had been closely observing my grandmother tend the back-garden soil to produce extraordinary crops with merely the magic of her care. Sweetcorn, squashes and beetroot, carrots, potatoes and calalloo, all emerged from the richly dark, moving substrate; alive with micro-life which seemed to proliferate and creep into areas of garden I thought to be unproductive!

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Children, and I was no exception, often use the dark soil of London as a key ingredient of mud ‘pies’. Does it resemble for them the nutritious ‘stew’ that it actually is? I studied the pathways of worms and ants. I loved the squishy and crumbly nature of the London, clayey loams and so I was often to be found digging around the ‘compost tip’ at the top of the garden, marvelling at the transformations taking place there.

Where comfrey grew were buried the foundations of my every present aspiration which were found in the shreddings of notebooks and the remains of Sunday dinner preparation and other ‘house wastes’.

It was from this transformed soil that I was almost literally fed until, late in teenager-hood; I left home to more rural parts of the country to learn the cycles of cows and sheep and the tyranny of tractors.

The Shaman, Malidoma Patrice Some speaks of the ritual immersion of the young person in the red soil of his village, as one of the necessary precursors to manhood amongst the Dagara of West Africa. It is where one gains possession of oneself through transformation. Moving from a burial to a resurrection in which one becomes ‘alive’ to one’s own, divine direction.

Soil

So my garden gave birth to me, one who was eventually to travel to the welcoming villages of Africa to discover the importance of interdependence. To learn, sometimes the hard way, of the necessary relationships of each living thing upon another, the impossibility of separation and the fundamental wrongness of living in and from a pathology of independence.

Increasingly what I hear coming out the voice of the Earth is a call to listen to the connecting places, that which is less visible, more silent, barely felt, scarcely sensed. We must re-attune our radars for better receptivity, for what is out there and all around us has lessons for us to both acknowledge and celebrate.

Let this year be the year of our truly seeing what is core to all of us: the African within and without and the soil at our feet. Maybe if we listen carefully enough and become immersed, we will hear and experience our own personal calls to action.

Mama D

@Indigenousknow

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

THE ELEPHANT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM… THREATENS TO FILL IT

(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.

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‘Reclaim our food system’, British Sugar factory April 29th 2015
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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.

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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.

Billingtons

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

http://www.food-info.net/uk/products/sugar/history.htm

http://www.britishsugar.co.uk/100-year-beet-sugar-celebration.aspx

http://www.dansukker.co.uk/uk/about-sugar/how-sugar-arrived-in-europe.aspx

http://clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/sugarexhibit/exhibits-caseonlinesugar.php

http://www.academia.edu/3599098/Sugar_Social_Class_and_Health_in_a_Sociological_View

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