We humans have figured out how to get to more or less every corner of this planet and have also — regretfully — shown there’s no creature too large (blue whales) or fierce (polar bears) that we can’t kill with the help of technology in the form of ships, harpoons or guns. Forget about the lion being the king of beasts: on the food chain, humans have come to think they are on top.
According to a new study, though, that is not the case at all. In fact, ecologists have found that humans rank between anchovies and pigs on the food chain and are more likely to be the prey rather than the predator.
To determine where we are on the global food chain, ecologists calculated humans’ trophic level. This is a number between 1 and 5.5 that shows the chain of transfer of energy. Algae and plants, who are the producers and take their energy directly from the sun, are at the bottom of the food chain and rated level 1. Level 2 includes herbivores (rabbits, deer).
Humans are omnivores who eat plants and herbivores and are given a rank of 2.2. Carnivores like foxes and wolves who eat only herbivores are ranked higher than us, at level 3. Cod (a fish that eats other fish) is ranked at level 4. At the very top (level 5.5) of the food chain are orcas and polar bears, animals who have no natural predators.
As Sylvain Bonhommeau, a fisheries scientist at the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea in Sète, comments in Nature, far from being the “top predator,” we humans “are closer to herbivore than carnivore” — closer, that is, to cows than to coyotes.
Bonhommeau and the other researchers based their calculations on data for 102 types of food (from animal fat to yams) in 176 countries from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, where a primarily vegetarian diet is the norm, up to 96 percent of people’s food is from plants. In contrast, in Iceland, Mongolia and Sweden, about 50 percent of people’s diet consists of meat and fish.
The FAO data used in the study was taken from 1961 to 2009 and an analysis of the statistics reveals that the global consumption of meat has increased over the past 50 years. As a result, we are edging closer to the carnivores and away from the herbivores as we’ve moved further up the global food chain. As Nature points out, though, not everyone is adding more and more meat to their diet:
Countries such as China and India, where hundreds of millions of people have lifted themselves out of poverty — and often out of diets that involved little more than rice — have shown marked increases in their trophic level. However, places such as Iceland, Mongolia and Mauritania, where traditional diets are mostly based on meat, fish or dairy, have seen their trophic levels decline as they diversified their daily fare.
While Americans are as a whole are more inclined to be meat eaters, per capita meat consumption in the United States has been declining for the past four consecutive years. Americans (who eat an average of 270.7 pounds of meat per person a year) still consume more meat than people in most other countries. But the small decline in meat consumption in the United States has resulted in Americans moving down the global food chain.
Around the world as a whole, demand for meat is growing, with more than a few detrimental results to the earth. Clearing land for agriculture, for fields to grow grains and soybeans to produce cattle feed, has led to widespread deforestation in places such as the Amazon basin. The loss of swaths of trees that sequestered carbon has contributed to global warming.
Even more, the gradual heating up of the Arctic and the melting of the glaciers is wreaking havoc on the wildlife who live there. Polar bears are at the apex of the food chain but, as shown by a report about one bear starving to death because the sea ice where he hunted for seals has been melting at an unprecedented rate, these top predators are helpless in the face of the climate change resulting from human activity.
Truly, we could help the planet — and all those who live on it — more by lessening (if not eliminating) our meat intake. While the new study about where humans are on the food chain doesn’t specifically call for us to eat less meat, it suggests why our doing so can be beneficial; why our moving back down the food chain and eating more of what some call “rabbit food” could help all creatures great and small and in between.
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