monkeys grooming, Indonesia

What is good ecology?

Ecology is the E in FED, the engine room of food production for both subsistence and intensive agriculture. Here we explain why good ecology is central to feeding everyone…

The word ecology is quite new. It first appeared around 1700 with Carl Linneaus but only developed into a serious scientific discipline since the 1950’s. This makes it a science infant compared to physics, chemistry and biology.

The various definitions of ecology revolve around the interactions between organisms and their environment, where the environment is also the other organisms. Ecology can apply to the microscopic interactions in the tiny spaces between soil particles all the way up to mass migrations of birds and grazing mammals across continents.

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house” and -λογία, “study of”) is a branch of biology concerning the spatial and temporal patterns of the distribution and abundance of organisms, including the causes and consequences


A quick google search reveals the most commonly associated contexts for ‘ecology’ are 

  •  What ecology means
  •  When was ecology founded
  •  Why is ecology important
  • Who started the idea of ecology

At sustainably FED we think of ecology as the processes that transfer nutrients and energy among and between organisms to generate biomass. 

Ecological processes always come together to generate more organisms (biomass) within the constraints of the environment. How this happens is through the behaviour of the organisms and the limits dictated by the context and conditions.  

In a collection of essays, G. Evelyn Hutchinson described The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play taking the analogy of ecology to be the many characters in a play about evolution. We think it is more like improv with cascades, feedback loops and uncertain regulation features everywhere. But we agree there is way more than the sum of the parts when ecology happens.

Ecology is the E in FED. 

close up image of ecology textbooks on a library shelf
Ecology has matured into a respected science discipline in its own right. Photo by Alloporus

What the Ecology in FED isn’t

Ecology is not the environment, it is what organisms do in environments and the consequences of their actions.

Ecology is definitely not the conservation of nature.

Conservation is an important topic that an understanding of ecology contributes to but ecology is not static. It is all about processes and flows not the specific organisms or their likely persistence. That is the domain of conservation and evolutionary biology.

Ecology for FED is not the deep ecology movement or the politics of going back to nature or the growing of dreadlocks. It is science and best understood through the scientific method. 

Ecology for FED is not scary. It is complex and takes some effort to understand but as the engine of food production, it is where many of the solutions to feeding everyone are found.

Ecology is not an opinion but a science that is backed by an ever-increasing body of evidence. A great deal is known about the way organisms interact to generate human values.

What is good ecology? 

Good ecology for FED suggests that there is an optimum exchange of nutrients and energy or even a stable state that generates biomass in food production systems. We don’t think of it like that.

All ecology is dynamic, unstable in human timeframes, with any number of ‘states’ and rates of change.

Ecology also differs from place to place. 

There is no one good state and no one state is ever the same as the next, even in the same location.

For sustainably FED good ecology can be understood, managed, and can sustainably deliver the goods and services that humans need.

This is blatantly humanistic on purpose because we are trying to understand how humanity can persist when there are 7.7 billion souls and counting. 

However, if we understand and manage ecology well from the human-centric view to find sustainability, it will help stabilise human resource use. This will support other values of nature and leave some resources for other organisms including the rare and endangered.

Most good ecology for food production starts with soil whilst in freshwater and marine environments, it starts with nutrients.

Overall, good ecology is the understanding of how nutrients and carbon (energy) move between organisms and result in human benefit — ecology for food and diet.

The size of the ecology challenge

In less than 100 years, modern ecology has revealed a great deal about the transfer of nutrients and energy between organisms. 

Ecology has also developed to cover a large number of sub-disciplines with knowledge of organisms themselves, their populations and how they come together in communities.

What must happen now is that these learnings are applied to the challenge of food production and diet. This is no small task. 

Humans do not readily see themselves as being part of ecology but we are organisms too that rely on the ecological engine for our survival. It might be easier to think that milk comes from the fridge but it comes from a modified ecological system.

We even find it hard to see the ecology going on in and on our bodies — not least billions of bacteria. 

So the ecology challenge is as much psychological as it is scientific.

Ultimately the challenge is to embrace ecology and realise it can save humanity and the planet if we use its learnings wisely.

Impala are common grazing mammals in large parts of east and southern Africa. Photo by Alloporus

What sustainably FED suggests…

Our concept of ecology is to see it as the engine of food production — how organisms interact with the environment to generate biomass that we direct to the products we need (agriculture). 

Ecology is also about the supporting and foundation services for biomass production including how to maintain and regenerate these processes where needed. 

Ecology is also about how food production can occur within ecological limits so as not to deplete the natural resource base, especially the soil. Already 40% of global soils under agricultural production are degraded with 70% of topsoil eroded. This cannot continue if humanity is to generate the necessary 22 trillion kilocalories per day for another 100 years plus to feed everyone.

Regenerative and renewable production systems are essential. This means understanding the ecology to adapt food production so it no longer mines the resource base.

Reliance on linear input-output systems of food production works for the moment but is not sustainable for the duration. Sustainability means a balance between energy, nutrients and the ecological engine.

Understanding ecological science will keep us on track and let us know if we have succeeded.

If this concept grabs you browse around the sustainable FED site for more information and ideas on diet, ecology and food.

See some suggestions below and our comments in the sFED feed

sustainably FED

Hero image by Alloporus


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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