Food: III. The Food Chain

Who reigns over this fragile food-chain, by virtue of what? – intelligence, cunning, adaptability & the strength of combined numbers?… Not your everyday animals, birds, reptiles, fish, plants  No, none but Man lords it, rules at the top –  glancing Askance heavenwards all the while with repressed guilt – which is why cannibals must surely head the food-chain … though he, like you, could just as easily succumb to a million other creatures, including invisible airborne spores … So know your limitations and learn to survive – especially the ministrations of your own kind.  

Tyrone Graham.   

Normally in the modern world we get our food from the grocery store where we pick and choose what we want, not just for the day, but for a whole week or more. We also store food for the long term future, whether in cans or in freezers.

When we stand in line in the cafeteria for lunch or dinner, we are part of a queue to reach our goal. That goal is the head of the line where there is the spread with trays of dishes for the day. This mode of satisfying hunger, orderly and civilized as it may be, is, as we all know, totally artificial.  We like this, not only because we have grown accustomed to it, but also because it is much more convenient than having to pluck fruits and vegetables, grain and green  every day, slaughter animals in the backyard or basement, and fetch water from the nearby stream every time we have to eat. 

For millennia now we have moved away from our pristine natural state. Such departure from nature’s life-style led to what we call the cultural phase where everything from eating and drinking  to clothing and greeting  is cultivated, as distinct from the spontaneity  in life and creative responses that characterize Nature. 

In the natural world, consumption of food occurs through another kind of chain, quite different from the one in the cafeteria. Nature’s way may seem cruel because it is wrought with claw and killing, involves pain and bloodshed. Compassionate believers may wonder why God devised a system where merciless mangling and dreaded death are necessities for the survival of species. One can imagine a system where every creature from ants and antelopes to lions and leopards can be nourished by sand and stone or through protein that Nature synthesizes in water from carbon dioxide and minerals. For whatever reason, this has not happened. God or Nature works in weird as well as in mysterious ways.

We have food chains in the biological world consisting of creatures that nourish themselves on other creatures that do the same. So every creature has sub-creatures on which it feeds and super-creatures which feed on it. Food is both passive and active, subject and object, noun and verb. It is not reciprocity but punishment, as it were, killing and karma. You killed that creature for your food because you are stronger, so a stronger one than yourself will kill you too for its food.

Thus a leaping frog that feeds on a fragrant flower is itself gobbled up by the wily snake which itself serves as food for the owl with   piercing eyes. In a calm and cool body of water, the bleak fish eats the shrimp, and is itself eaten by the perch which is good food for the pike. The pike is delicious dish for the osprey. Thus we have a series of biters who are themselves bit,  gobblers who are themselves gobbled.

In some food chains each creature lives on just one species. Ecologists call them monophagous food chains. There are also polyphagous food webs which are the marvelous cascading quilts of eaters and the eaten in the complex biosphere.

When we picture our blue planet  or display it on a map, what come to the fore are the mantle of air, vast lands and vaster seas, slender streams and surging rivers, rocky mountains and green meadows,  deserts and plains, as also cities and towns and villages galore. But built in the physical framework of air and water and at a safe  and sustaining distance from the sun, and the countless biochemical molecules  in the engine of life, there is this invisible scaffolding  for life-forms that is as much part of our green planet as atmosphere and oceans, continents and tectonic plates. This bio-friendly scaffolding is what sustains all life. At the individual organismic level, life is essentially a chemically complex open system that absorbs and eliminates matter and energy, and is subject to a variety of experiences in the process. At the collective level it is an interconnected and interdependent net of wriggling, throbbing, and feeding organisms which have evolved as different species.

We need both matter and energy. There is matter aplenty all around us on and inside our planet. There is abundant energy splashed by the inexhaustible sun shining day and night on our abode. The challenge is to trap that energy, not just for lighting homes, running cars, and for a hundred other purposes that technologies accomplish, but for the most vital processes in the living body. Even after a billion years of evolution, the capturing of energy directly from sunlight for this need has been  achieved only by the green of the world which are  at the base of all food chains. Known as  autotrophs, these turn inorganic matter into organic ones, utilizing  the influx of photons from the radiant sun. Autotrophs have the extraordinary capacity to turn lifeless carbon dioxide and water  into organic molecules: energy-packed glucose that nourish entities throbbing with the magic of life. Green grasses are biological solar panels. Without revealing their chemical technology of energy-transfer, they  feed the heterotrophs that can survive only by consuming organic food. Thus, practically all living organisms depend one way or another on autotrophs. No less marvelous are the grass-eating cattle and horses  which transform grass into proteins and carbohydrates;  and  feed    countless other creatures on earth. They, in turn, eat and feed on other creatures, and themselves become food sooner or later for some other creature.

As good old Shakespeare put it: “We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table; that’s the end. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.” Paraphrasing the Scriptures, one might say “From grass thou sprang and unto grass thou shalt go.”

  Whether herbivores or carnivores, parasites or saprophytes, every one of them, from microscopic organisms like viruses and bacteria to mammoth whales and giant redwoods need food in one form or another. This is another context where some may want to suggest another blueprint for life: Make organisms such that they have every experience they currently have without any need for food. This may not be all that naïve when we consider that this could well be an ultimate outcome of robotic research: the fabrication of living systems, even humanoids that need no food beyond dry-cell batteries for joyful existence.

But that is not quite how biological species thrive now. One  of the greatest wonders to have emerged in Nature is the intricate food web on earth that has been functioning so admirably well until quite recently.  This self-sustaining labyrinth feeds billions of organisms. It is among the most sophisticated complexities in a universe replete with routinely functioning complex systems. Its sole purpose is to answer to the alimentary needs and hunger pangs of life forms on our planet.

The food chain may be a predator chain in which super-creatures feed on sub-creatures, sort of like a capitalist economy. Or it may be a parasite chain in which smaller organisms subsist on larger ones, sort of like a welfare system. Or again, and certainly the least cruel of all, is the saprophytic chain where microorganisms live on dead matter, not unlike divers who delve the oceans to find lost treasures in sunken ships. Scavengers like vultures feed on corpses and carcasses too, grateful to Zoroastrians who let them feast on their dear departed.

Scavenging is certainly less intrusive on fellow creatures than the systematic slaughters that take place routinely in the abattoirs of world where poultry, cattle, and hogs are prepared for the butcher shops and kitchen tables of the world.

Humans are unique, not only in mind but also in body. Unlike in most other creatures, our digestive system can tolerate a variety of foods: we are not, evolutionarily speaking, vegetarians or carnivores, but omnivores. The buffet in a restaurant colorfully expresses our capacity and craving for all kinds of foods, from vegetables and fruits  to pork and poultry.  We have been described as opportunistic eaters, i.e. capable of eating and digesting whatever food is available in the fields, at the market, or at a host’s dinner table, or in the cafeteria at Silver Bay. We cannot afford to be scavengers because carcasses breed toxic microorganisms.

With the advent of civilization, vegetables are no longer eaten raw, except in salads and exotic diets. Now, like meat,  they are cooked and salted and spiced, baked and broiled and barbecued. However, with the growth in human population we could not live simply on what the land gives from its generous soil. So we developed the science of agriculture, of animal farming and poultry faming and fisheries and what not in more sophisticated ways than Nature’s food chain. In our industrialized world food also involves fertilizers and fuel-burning tractors, transportation trucks, refrigerators, and such. All this has become intrinsic to the human-centered food chain.  They are what make the abundance and easy availability of food for those who can afford. Somehow food chains have been sustained for long in wondrously balanced ways.

In this context it is extremely important to understand we can and do affect the food chain in significant ways. Our predator role, whether through deer hunting or in other  contexts is part of nature’s carnivorous eco-framework. But we can and do affect food chains knowingly or uknowingly in important ways. When we inject  elements in a food chain injurious to the system, the impact can be disastrous not only for the members within the system, but for others also.  The web of interlinking food chains  involving countless organisms can be disrupted in at least two ways: Either by making their survival impossible by injecting toxic substances in their environment or by removing some members in the chain through excessive hunting or fishing.  If the body chemistry of a species is adversely affected, then that of the creature that consumes it will also be affected. As  and when we add to the environment chemical pollutants, these eventually enter the bodies of various consumers. Thus we have managed to make vultures nearly extinct in many parts of the world through pesticides which entered into the bodies of animals on whose carcasses vultures feed.

In the 1980s India, like Bangladesh, used to export frogs’ legs for the culinary delight of the French. While millions of dollars were earned in this way, considerable diminution resulted in frog population in India. This led to significant increase in certain insect populations. Frogs eat more than their weight of insects, some of  which are harmful to crops. They also eat mice which feed on carelessly stored grains.

So India began to import and use more pesticides. More pollution followed the additional use of  pesticides.  It was discovered that it is far cheaper to ban the export of frogs’ legs and forego the foreign exchange than buy and dump more pesticides on the land. So the price of cuisses de grenouillerose in France, until the French  found that Indonesia was willing to leap into the frog market, though at least one school of Islamic law prohibits the killing of frogs and other amphibians.  Leaving aside the inhumanity in the callous butchery of frogs, which involves the dumping of twitching live creatures in a mountainous heap, the ecological impact of eliminating vast numbers of frogs from the wild is considerable.

On the other hand,  the domestication of sheep not only helps in grazing vast tracts of grassland, but also eliminates insects harmful to agriculture. Then again, by introducing rabbit into Australia, the whole ecology of the continent was unhealthily, and perhaps irrepairably, affected.

Like tigers and lions in the wilderness we are not just predators, but apex predators. In the sea it is the great white shark that is the largest apex predator. Weighing 4000 pounds and with 300 teeth, each one of these creatures is said to consume 11 tons of food every year. Devouring as they do vast numbers of sea-lions, dolphins, and other sharks  which feed relentlessly on smaller fish, white sharks keep the fish and squid population in balance and available for human needs. Largely because of overfishing and accidental trapping by nets thrown into the sea, the white shark has been put on the list of endangered species.

Our encroachment into the natural food chain is nowhere more dramatic than in our callous treatment and reckless exploitation of the seas.  In the ocean the microscopic phytoplankton is connected to the zooplankton eaten by small fish, larger fish and so on up to the giant whale. Thus when chemical industries  dump  dioxins, heavy metals, and  polychlorinated  biphenyl into the ocean, these enter the plankton and eventually reach dolphins and many kinds of fish. The PCBs accumulate in the fat of  animals.  In the case of dolphins they are passed on through mother’s milk to the offspring. This is what led to an alarming death rate of first born dolphins in many waters of the world some decades ago. Fish and shrimp, dolphin and whale meat consumed by humans were thus polluted. This happened in Japan, among the Inuits of Canada, and the Arctic people in Europe: wherever people eat seals and whales. Bringing this information to the people saved a few who came to know about it and avoided these foods, but it did not save the aquatic animals.

The ocean’s food pyramid has also been polluted by sewage and farm fertilizers that create vast amounts of bacteria and algae. Every time a beach is closed, it is because of the chain reaction induced by pollution at the most basic level. There has been a steady rise in seafood-related infectious diseases in the U.S. and all over the world.

Or again, consider the finding that in many parts of the world bees are fast disappearing. Some seven years ago it was reported by beekeepers that many healthy bees took off from their hives and simply did not return. Scientists were quick to give this phenomenon a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. According to some reports, by now a third of the bees in the  United States have disappeared. This is a greater sting than what a thousand bees can collectively give us. Absence of bees  will not just make it difficult to get honey. There is much, much more to the disappearance of bees: Countless fruits and vegetables depend – have depended for ages – on bees for pollination. The diminution in bees would be terrible because the list of vegetations that rely heavily on bees ranges from almonds and apples through broccoli and cucumber to pea nuts and soybeans and more.

Some suspect that there is perhaps a new parasitic mite that is disabling the bees, or a virus that is affecting their immune system.  Whatever the cause, the total disappearance of bees would be among the most disastrous environmental impacts on the human condition.

This is a telling reminder that the food web of which we are a part includes creatures that we seldom look upon as related to us is any way. This danger is not unrelated to global warming. The climactic alterations that have been unleashed, irrespective of who or what is the cause of it all, are bound to affect rainfall and draught, causing uncontrollable floods and scorching draught that would make arable land untillable or sterile. Should that come to pass, the regular greens and grains we have been harvesting for thousands of years will come to a screeching halt. No matter how, if the web of food supply be punctured here and there in significant ways, the end result would spell disaster of catastrophic proportions.  That has the potential for making our species extinct more effectively than religious bigotry, unrest in the Middle East, or war between big powers.  The only consolation, if such were to happen, is that other organisms, less intelligent and less creative for sure, but more in harmony with their environment, will live and thrive for longer stretches of time.

As we all know, the matter of polluting the environment with chemicals and its long rage effects was first thoroughly researched, reported, and warned by Rachel Carson some fifty years ago. In her classic and path-changing book Silent Spring, she shockingly pointed out the harm we were inflicting on our environment and on ourselves in the name of scientific progress, mistakenly imagining we were helping ourselves.

Let me conclude with a poem by L. Frank Baum:

A bee flew down and ate an ant,
a bug he ate the bee,
a hen then gobbled down the bug,
but failed the hawk to see,
the hawk had eaten up the hen
before she saw the cat
which ate her up but, then the dog
ate the cat quick as that.
a wolf now sprang upon the dog
and ate him in an instant,
and then a lion ate the wolf
and found her very pleasant.
but when the lion fell asleep he said I really cant

imagine why that wolf should taste exactly like an ant.

August 20, 2013

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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