monkeys grooming, Indonesia

What is food ecology?

Food ecology is the E in FED, the engine room of food production for subsistence and intensive agriculture. Here we explain why understanding ecology is central to feeding everyone well.

Food ecology is how nature responds to the insatiable human need for food production and nutrition—the interactions between organisms that grow into food for humans and how humans gain nutritional health from the food we choose to eat.

Food ecology appears all along the six-continent global food chain in food production, harvesting, preservation, storage, transport, processing, packaging, trade, distribution, preparation, composition, and consumption of food, as well as disposal of waste materials.

It is also about human ecology, the complex interaction between the human body and the food we consume that includes our evolutionary history and the health and nutrition of the food we eat today—Sustainably FED covers what we eat today and why in our section on sustainable diet. 

Here we explain why the science of ecology is critical to feeding everyone well now and for a long time to come. 

And if we don’t feed everyone well, humanity will collapse under the weight of unmet expectations… and that will be ugly.

Here is ecology, the science that might help save us from ourselves.

Picture of my bookshelf that holds dozens of text books on ecology but not one on food ecology, yet

Ecology has matured into a respected science discipline in its own right

What is ecology?

Ecology comes from the Greek word Oikos which means house, home and family in ancient Greek. It studies the relationships among living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment.

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


Ecology is about where an organism lives, how it lives, performs within its home, and the effects of all the interactions with other organisms over its lifetime.

All organisms have an ecology, and increasingly, it is manipulated by humans as we alter nature to support our own.

Science of ecology

The word ecology is relatively new. 

It first appeared around 1700 with Carl Linnaeus but only developed into a scientific discipline in the 1950s. This makes it a science infant.

Beginning in the Renaissance, 300 years before Linnaeus and long before ecology became a thing, scientists were content with defining nature through the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology. They searched for unifying laws of nature that could explain observable facts. And over time, many of the fundamentals were understood, providing the foundation for technology, engineering and agriculture.

In the natural world, biology helped us understand physiology, nutrition and how organisms maintained their chemical engines and from that, we developed medicine to treat our ailments. 

A historical perspective on nature and comparing the diversity of life—biodiversity—gave us evolutionary biology. This helped explore the origins of life and why nature is so diverse.

We needed ecology to explain what happens when organisms interact daily, for there are patterns and emergent properties not readily described or predicted by biology, chemistry and physics. 

Properties emerge when organisms interact, and without ecology, little predictive ability to determine them. Some individuals survive while others do not. Some compete and win, others lose, and species occur together or do not.

  • What happens to seedlings if ten seeds germinate in the same patch of soil compared to when only one seed germinates? 
  • How does the plant respond to the attention of a grasshopper or a goat? 
  • What does the goat do when the eagle flies above its kid?

Then there is an organism’s response to the physicality of its ‘home’ or niche.

  • What happens when it gets cold or hot or dry
  • What does the organism do if a hurricane flattens half the tree in its habitat or a fire burns everything?
  • What does the prairie dog do if a competitor steals its burrow or a rattlesnake finds the burrow entrance?

Ecology is the science that answers these and many more interaction questions. 

It can apply to the microscopic interactions in the tiny spaces between soil particles up to mass migrations of birds and grazing mammals across continents. All the various definitions of ecology revolve around the interactions between organisms and their environment, where the environment includes the other organisms.

Ecology is about the interactions between organisms and the consequences, including the transfer of energy and nutrients—ecology is also about processes.

  • A plant uses solar energy and soil nutrients to survive, grow and reproduce—it makes more. 
  • A grasshopper, unable to produce energy, eats the plant leaves to power its survival, growth and reproduction. 
  • A stork eats the grasshopper because it can use the nutrients that the grasshopper accumulated from the plant for its survival, growth and reproduction. 

Energy is transferred across trophic levels from plant to herbivore to carnivore.

Soon enough, the plant, grasshopper and stork die, and their tissues return to the earth as fuel for another combination of decomposer organisms that break the tissues into nutrients taken up by subsequent generations of plants.

These ecological processes of energy capture and transfer power nature. They also power food production for humans. It is why we are here, and understanding ecology is how humanity might persist.

At sustainably FED, we think of food ecology through this systems lens as the processes that transfer nutrients and energy among and between organisms to generate biomass that humans eat.

But we remember the past.

Evolutionary ecology—more making

Ecological processes come together to create more organisms (biomass) within the constraints of the environment and the interactions with other organisms. This happens through the behaviour of the organisms, their adaptations, and the limits dictated by the environmental context and conditions.

Organisms can only persist if they are already endowed with the form, physiology, and behaviour to survive, grow and reproduce in their environment. They have to fit. 

Evolutionary ecology is the science that helps us understand how this happens, and how the fit survives and makes more.

Here is evolutionary ecology in a nutshell.

  • Organisms have attributes that are a product of their genes (genotype) and their interaction with the environment (phenotype)
  • Change happens by chance and disturbance.
  • Organisms with the attributes to respond well to change do better than those without adequate adaptation and persist with a better chance of reproduction—they are naturally selected.
  • These naturally selected organisms do well for a time, reproducing more effectively than other types until they change across the generations through random gene mutation or until the environment changes.
  • What was once optimal might not be anymore, and alternative types respond more efficiently to the changes and can take over.
  • Organisms that responded well initially may die out in the new conditions.
  • Some organisms are good at riding change by responding on the fly—a response called phenotypic plasticity—others are stuck with their specific adaptations and must move to find conditions that suit them or rapidly evolve new ones.
  • When acute change happens, organisms must adapt, move or die.

This sequence happens with disturbances large, small, acute or mild and has been on repeat for at least 3.7 billion years. 

All the organisms alive today, now called biodiversity, are the current expressions of this ancient process.

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. It is more like improv with cascades, feedback loops, and uncertain regulation features everywhere. But we agree that the reason for ecology is that there is more than the sum of the parts.

A few essential features of this evolutionary process of natural selection that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace figured out in the late 1850s are relevant to food ecology

  • understanding ecology is impossible without knowing the fundamentals of evolution
  • all organisms are a consequence of their evolutionary past
  • disturbance is the process that maintains diversity
  • extinction is inevitable

Homo sapiens are one product of evolution—a large mammal—with plastic responses to new environments, especially the food on offer. We became consummate explorers and colonists.

Then we did something that no other large organisms could do effectively. We captured exogenous energy—we used energy sources outside our bodies to do some of our ecological work.

It began with the domestication of draught animals and then went ballistic with coal, gas and especially oil.

We used this energy to manipulate nature to work for us and change the environment to make us more comfortable. We built infrastructure and controlled ecological processes to grow food—we invented dominion.

Applied food ecology. 

All human foods come from organisms—plants and animals—with an ecology. They have a ‘home’ that we modify to make them more productive but not always comfortable, and they interact with each other and a myriad of other organisms, some of which we try to control.

Most interactions are with organisms we cannot see and know very little about—the soil biodiversity and the microbial diversity that lives in and on our livestock. 

Organisms that make up our food have a food ecology, the E in sustainably FED, the middle connecting pillar of feeding everyone well.

We chose it as the glue because ecology is the science that helps us understand how food is grown, what can be produced, where and when, and what food should be raised for the best nutrition and energy supply to a human population of 8 billion. 

When humans invented agriculture 12,000 years, those early farmers refined their original process of obtaining food by gleaning what they could from nature’s bounty to have dominion over nature. Agriculture altered ecological systems to simplify them and to channel energy and nutrients into crops and livestock.  

Essentially we applied ecology.

Changes were modest at first, and then, with the help of fossil fuel energy and technology, became acute and widespread. A cornfield is far from the multi-species grassland grazed by bison and dug up by prairie dogs.

Roughly a third of the land area on earth is barren and uninhabitable. Forests and shrublands cover a little of half the habitable area leaving 48 million km2 (46% of the habitable land) for agriculture. Only 23% of this land is used for crops (11 million km2),  yet humans appropriate over 40% of the global net primary production.

Humans have applied ecology a lot.

Graphic from Our World in Data that shows global land use and just how much land humans use for our food ecology

The fundamentals of population, community, systems and evolutionary ecology, when used to understand this human influence and need, is called applied ecology.  

The challenge modern humans face is to feed ourselves. Growing enough food to feed everyone is a daily 22 trillion kilocalories mega task before we get to nutrition. 

We arrived at this sustainable food need by manipulating the ecology of half the habitable land and eating fossil fuels.

The only way humanity will persist is ecologically—we cannot invent or power technologies to produce 22 trillion calories daily from thin air. That miracle can only happen via soil.

What food ecology is not.

Whilst we have tried to explain why we believe that ecology is both the critical connection between food and diet and the answer to sustainable food, there are a few things that it could be better when it comes to feeding everyone well.

Food ecology is 

  • not the environment. It is what organisms do in environments and the consequences of their actions.
  • Not the conservation of nature. This is an important topic that an understanding of ecology contributes to, but ecology is dynamic. It is all about processes and flows, not the specific organisms or their likely persistence—that is the domain of conservation and evolutionary biology.
  • Not the deep ecology movement, the politics of returning to nature, or the growing dreadlocks. It is science and best understood through the scientific method. 
  • Not scary. It is complex and takes some effort to understand, but as the engine of food production, it is where the solutions to feeding everyone are found.
  • Not an opinion but a science backed by an ever-increasing body of evidence. Much is known about how organisms interact to generate human values, and the evidence grows each year as the science of ecology matures.

What is food ecology? 

If food ecology is not the environment, conservation, deep ecology and not an opinion, what is it?

Food ecology is the relationships among living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment for producing human food. It is ecology applied to human food systems.

And it is a vital science.

All ecology is dynamic and unstable in human timeframes, with any number of ‘states’ and rates of change. There is no ‘good’ state, and no one state is ever the same as the next, even in the same location. Ecology also differs from place to place. 

One of the attractive features of ecology for scientists is this variability and complexity; we sometimes call it heterogeneity.

It is also why we have to apply ecology to agricultural systems because there is a considerable risk in taking a complex, heterogeneous system and simplifying it to produce a single crop of one variety over a field of 5 ha.

The vegetation preceding the field would have contained over a hundred species with thousands of individuals interacting. The soil that supported the plants contained a million species of micro-organisms and uncountable individuals, all interacting to transfer nutrients from organic matter to plant roots whilst helping to hold onto water. 

Even if the field, now ploughed with energy from oil, were left fallow, dozens of plant species would colonise the soil. Leave it like this for a decade, and a keen observer would see a change in the species as new ones arrive and the early colonisers die out.

Ecology has happened. 

Ecology happens even when humans try to control, simplify, or direct it to produce what we value.

Food ecology is also about recognising that sustainable food production is an ecological process, not an engineering one.

And to make it more challenging, most food ecology will happen in the soil where we can’t see it and know very little about what goes on. 

The size of the food ecology challenge

In less than 100 years, the science of ecology has revealed a great deal about the transfer of nutrients and energy between organisms. Ecology has also developed to cover sub-disciplines to gain knowledge of organisms themselves (ecophysiology), their populations (population ecology) and how they come together in communities (community ecology). 

While there is always more to discover, ecologists are well-informed about how nature works.

Now, these learnings must be applied to the challenge of food production and diet. This is no small task when the global human population is 8 billion, and the food supply chains span six continents but still require vast inputs of exogenous energy and appropriate half the habitable land for agriculture.

To put this appropriation into context, 97% of the land mammal biomass on earth today—that’s the weight of the mammals we can see with our eyes—is made up of livestock, animals that human beings manage for our benefit. You don’t need to look far to find the real reason for biodiversity loss.

Humans have used fossil fuel energy to simplify ecology on a global scale. 

Initial success in agricultural intensification created more food that became more people, and now we are in a bind. We have made food production an industrial process that has to continue or people starve, only we have also tried to detach production from its ecology. That is both impossible and a colossal mistake. 

Ask a farmer what he thinks about weeds to see what happens if we simplify food ecology.

Across our category of sustainable food, we outline the food production and food security issues of feeding everyone well, and it tells us that we have to grow an unprecedented amount of food for a very long time—the physicality of the challenge is immense.

Food ecology is the only way we can get sustainable food.

And if 22 trillion kilocalories a day for an indefinite number of generations defined the food ecology challenge, then we could throw resources at it and get going with the science.

But there is more…

Milk comes from the fridge

Ask a teenager where the milk comes from, and you know what she will say.

Not able to detach herself from the screen in her hand, she is an individual, separate from the world and no more a part of ecology than the wildlife documentary she watched for five minutes.

And it’s not her fault. She was raised in a society that believes in dominion over nature, and that nature is there to be exploited as an inalienable right. 

We even avoid this truth in our environmental advocacy. Why are we obsessed with climate change when sustainable food is a far more immediate and potentially catastrophic challenge? 

Although storm surges and wildfires are acute for an increasing number of people, climate warming and extreme weather make sustainable food harder to achieve, but it doesn’t stop it altogether.

Can you think what would happen if the food ran out?

We do everything we can to escape the admission that we are animals in nature. We even find it hard to see the ecology in and on our bodies—not least the billions of bacteria.

Modern humans might not see ourselves as part of ecology, but we are organisms that rely on the ecological engine for survival. It might be easier to think that milk comes from the fridge but from a modified ecological system.

The food ecology challenge is as much psychological as it is scientific.

Human ecology

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

This is blatantly humanistic on purpose because we are trying to understand how humanity can persist when there are 8 billion souls and counting. 

However, understanding and managing ecology well from the human-centric view to find sustainability 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.

Close up of a herd of impala in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

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

What sustainably FED suggests…

Our concept of food ecology is to see it as the engine of food production—how organisms interact with the environment to generate biomass that humans direct into the food we need to feed everyone.

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

Food ecology is also about how food production can occur within ecological limits to not 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 because we know that the fossil fuel pulse will wane. This means understanding the ecology to adapt food production so it no longer mines the resource base but instead replenishes soil carbon and soil biodiversity.

Sustainably FED has sustainability everywhere, even though we are suspicious of a term that has lost its true meaning in everyday use. We have categories of sustainable food and diet because chaos ensues if the food supply chain fails. 

Over-reliance on linear input-output systems of food production works for the moment but needs to be more sustainable for the duration. Half the nitrogen in human bodies comes from the Haber-Bosch process, the industrial production of ammonia that becomes nitrogen fertiliser. It’s a crude metric, but half the food eaten contains nitrogen from man-made fertiliser.

Soon, agriculture must transition towards a net energy source rather than a sink with the plug out. 

The science of food ecology will keep us on track and let us know if we have succeeded.

If this concept of food ecology grabs you browse around the sustainable FED site for more information and ideas

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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