WTF is a trophic cascade? Why we should eat lower on the food chain? AND, is lab-meat low on the food chain?
Trophic Cascades and the Circle of Life
Everyone reading probably already knows of trophic cascades by another name. If you have seen the Lion King, you might call it “The circle of life”, in school they called it the “food chain”, in yoga class they might call it “interconnectedness”. Wildlife biologists study these concepts under the label of “Trophic Cascades”. This is the researched reality that every ecosystem in balance is inherently connected with intimate and crucial relationships of survival. Some of these confluences are visible to us, and some of them become more obvious when studied with a meticulous eye.
A trophic cascade is: powerful indirect interactions that control entire ecosystems, occurring when a trophic level in a food web is suppressed.
Our earth and the life inside of it evolved into a wild and cacophonous balance. Sure, it isn’t always pleasant, pretty or enjoyable to witness, but it is PERFECT. It works very efficiently when left alone…enter humans. Introducing the Industrial and agricultural ages coupled with modern technology. The same things that could ultimately solve all of our problems in the long run, are simultaneously the ones that have put our wellbeing as humans and the health of our environment in a dire situation. People are disturbed by an increase in natural disasters, melting ice caps, rising oceans and shortened and warmer winters, but it is very hard to understand how we can fix this day to day. So, we go on with our guards up in denial.
BUT WAIT, I promise you this isn’t another diatribe about the doom and gloom of the “state of things”. This is precisely why learning about trophic cascades is beneficial. Before I go down that rabbit-hole, I want to say that by understanding the damage we have done with our food systems, we will be able to see how much power we have as the individual and collective to mend them. I give you HOPE!
The Food Chain and Our Ecosystems
Our food systems are the leading cause of climate change and global warming. Modern agriculture is destroying the earth that sustains us. By illustrating how balanced ecosystems and trophic cascades work, you can easily see why. Let’s begin with a balanced ecosystem, one that is healthy and regenerative, meaning it is biodiverse, sequestering carbon as fast as emissions, and the aquifer is functioning on a healthy timeline for life on earth. These systems look very different geographically, from tundra to desert and ocean to forested lake. Each unique system is evolved to its climate, bacteria, geological landscape, humidity and so on- you get the picture.
These ecosystems are made up of some version of the same equation. First you have predators at the top, these creatures are at the top of their food chain. They normally gestate for a longer period of time and give birth to fewer young, making their numbers few in the landscape, but incredibly monumental in impact-we’ll talk about that later. Often these members are carnivorous and eat animals lower on the food chain, but will also eat plants and insects to supplement. Examples of predators are Mountain lions, Sharks, Snakes and Spiders. Of course, predators can fall prey to other creatures on occasion, but generally speaking they are safe from predation themselves.
Next you have prey. These creatures have a much larger population and normally feed on plants or smaller creatures for survival. Many of them are “browsing species” which have dramatic impact on the landscape as they forage on willows, buds of aspen trees etc. These animals have slightly lower gestation periods and give birth to more offspring on average. Examples of prey would be zebra, salmon, fox, rabbits, elk and llamas.
Lower still in the animal kingdom are insects, which are worth mentioning for countless reasons. They reproduce quickly and efficiently and their hatches result in very large numbers of insects to ensure survival. They thrive off very few natural resources, but their impact on the ecosystem is expansive. You can imagine what insect populations without checks and balances look like. Insects serve and have served the rest of the animal kingdom as a critical nutrition source since the beginning of time. Insects are food, but they are also significant players in the game of decomposition. Their role in composting provides regenerated top soil for all plant, bacteria and fungal life to be synthesized and reborn. In this system, death is rebirth.
Lower still on the food chain are bacteria and fungi. Both of these entities are crucial to healthy ecosystems- flora, fauna and human alike. A small and tangible example is demonstrated in our recent research on the microbiome and the role our bacteria has in our digestion and overall health. There are more bacterial cells that makeup our bodies than human cells! Incredible. And fungus research is equally as impressive. Recently through mushroom-pioneers like Paul Stamets’ research we find the medicinal and health properties of fungus are seemingly infinite beyond the birth of modern antibiotics (penicillin). Together, bacteria and fungus are primarily responsible for breaking down organic matter and emitting nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and phosphorus into the atmosphere and soil to both clean and revive our natural landscapes. Sort of important.
One can easily see the interconnectedness that lives in balance through nature’s complex systems. Predators are only healthy if the numbers of prey animals are healthy. An example of this would be a mountain lion meeting its demise of starvation during a cold winter in response to an unhealthy population of big horn sheep or deer (favorite meals for the cats!) in the ecosystem.
Predators and prey have healthy food systems only when the flora below is healthy and in balance- this is a bottom up trophic cascade.
Prey animals will take over in an unbalanced way if the predators are removed causing other complicated problems- this is a top down example. An example of this is when mountain lion and wolf populations are weak the “browsing species” (elk, deer, moose, sheep) multiply. These species over browse on willows, grasses, aspen etc. This limits habitat for birds and squirrels directly impacting insect populations. It also impacts soil stability, increasing erosion on river and stream banks. The plants that keep the banks together also provide shade for species of fish that prefer a cooler temperature of water for optimal health.
Nature is FULL of these examples, and this demonstrates how crucial mother earth’s balance is to the health of life on earth…but also how delicate and vulnerable to disturbances.
Subsidy Trophic Cascades
A very interesting trophic cascade is one of subsidy.
Subsidy trophic cascades are perhaps of most interest for the purposes of this blog. A couple of examples follow, but the definition is something like this: A non-native food source that did not originate in evolutionary balance with the “eater’s natural habitat”.
- Think of mountain lions or wolves eating livestock
- Coyotes, Crows and others eating human garbage
- Grazers inadvertently consuming plants with fertilizers, herbicides or bug sprays.
- Humans modern agricultural practices and monoculture- resulting in soil depletion, disappearing natural landscapes and biodiversity, requiring large water supply (without replenishing aquifers) as a result of clearing landscapes to be more manageable and friendlier our large-scale agricultural processes.
These disturbances in the food chain are monumental.
How We Avoid Disaster
HEY! I thought she promised us hope for a utopian future. Well, yes, the answer is fairly simple to avoid the disaster above.
- EAT LOWER ON THE FOOD CHAIN
Why is it important to eat lower on the food chain?
10 billion people by 2050, we need to feed them with limited natural resources, and now we are behind because we have de-mineralized our top soil-much of which blows away in the wind because of changing climate patterns that have led to higher temperatures, less moisture and higher winds.
- EAT WHOLE FOODS THAT DON’T REQUIRE MORE PROCESSING AND THUS ENERGY
That’s it! The further up the food chain you eat more regularly, the more natural resources, time and energy are required. The further down, the less energy, time and natural resources are required. Each time you alter a food by processing it, that food loses nutritional value, recognizability in the body and requires more ENERGY and TRANSPORT to arrive at your grocery store.
Why Don’t We all Just Eat Lab Meat?
Maybe we should a little bit, and anyone wanting to change their diet for the environment should be empowered to do so! BUT here are my thoughts as a nutritionist on lab meat.
It’s not in the food chain at all? Our bodies never had the chance to evolve to lab food. We thrive off whole foods and not big masses of lab-made conglomerate. Our bodies evolved to recognize whole foods, our entire digestive system was built by 6 million years of trial, error by genetic mutations. When we found whole foods in nature before the modern agricultural era they were always in whole food form and rarely if ever were we eating large numbers of ingredients together (they compete for absorption by the way).
Impossible Burger : Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% Or Less Of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate, Vitamins and Minerals (Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12).
Beyond Burger : Water, pea protein*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors , dried yeast, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, and less than 1% of potato starch, salt, potassium chloride, beet juice color, apple extract, pomegranate concentrate, sunflower lecithin, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, vitamins and minerals (zinc sulfate, niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, cyanocobalamin, calcium pantothenate).
Besides, think about all of the process and energy consumed to put these ingredients into lab creations. Getting these products on the shelf at the market has a huge environmental cost. There is a serious debate over whether the energy use and CO2 emissions may cause more problems than they solve. It appears that while this might be sustainable in the short-term, it is looking more resource intensive in the long term.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
If this topic excites and captivates your attention, we highly recommend these two books:
The Wolf’s Tooth- Cristina Eisenberg
Path of the Puma- Jim Williams and Joe Glickman
For kids: PBS show “Wild Kratts” watch online for free! https://pbskids.org/wildkratts/videos/