Eating in the Symbiocene

| 13th May 2019
A wallaby resting under an orange tree
Glenn Albrecht
Intensive agriculture's role in the destruction of symbiosis is well-documented and cannot be ignored any longer.

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All material aspects of human society need to be symbiotically re-integrated with the rest of life.

That shift will be an intellectual, cultural and spiritual one, where anthropocentric or human-centred thinking will be replaced by 'sumbiocentric' thinking. 

The production and consumption of food is of utmost importance in the material transition from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene. The revolution in symbiotic science that has taken place over the last 40 years teaches us that to eat as ‘sumbiovores’ we must produce sumbiosic food. 

Sumbiocentrism

To be sumbiocentric means that one is taking into account the centrality of the life-process of symbiosis in all of our deliberations, as opposed to being anthropocentric, or human-centered. Symbiosis, as a scientific term, is derived from the Greek, sumbios, or to ‘live together’. 

Protecting the sumbios requires us to give priority to the maintenance of symbiotic bonds within and between species and the aim of such thinking is to maximize those bonds and to allow further creative liaisons to take place. Symbiosis holds life forms together as a community or biome; it is life-glue.

Sumbiocentrism is also an ethical position which entails that maintaining symbiotic connections, diversity and unity, within complex systems, is the highest good. 

To live together with the richest diversity of life will be good for humans and will maximize the vitality and viability of interconnected life forms, including those living within us, known as our gut microbiome.

Industrialised food production has ignored symbiosis and has endangered the vitality of all life in the process. In order to become an ethical eater of food, we need to identify the key aspects of industrial agriculture that have violated symbiosis and the biodiversity dependent on it. 

Industrial agriculture

For those no longer living close to the land and primary sources of food, there has been increasing alienation from the reality of food production. It comes as a rude shock to many that the industrial system of food production, especially for meat, has inherent environmental and ethical problems.

Modern, intensive, industrial forms of agriculture (plant and animal) maximise a negative and alienating relationship to those things we eat because they ignore the symbiotic foundations of all life.

Gigantism in agriculture (get big or die) means that in order to meet the requirements of economies of scale, huge tracts of land must be cleared of virgin vegetation and soil turned into a medium for the growing of food. In doing this, untold trillions of interrelated organisms (small and big) are extinguished. 

The massive loss of native vegetation and its animal and insect biodiversity in tropical zones for palm oil and non-food crops such as tea, coffee and cacao is well documented. 

Extensive monocultures - grain, pulses, vegetables, fruit or meat - are only possible with huge inputs from the 'cides' or killers of life. 

Destroying symbiosis 

Herbicides, insecticides, parasitecides, fungicides are all used to maximise production and profit. These bio- and ecocides are inherently symbiosis-busting chemicals as they work against all forms of life.  

For example, some types of insecticide can kill nitrogen fixing bacteria that inhabit the root nodules of legumes such as soy. Symbiosis between the plant and the bacteria is then replaced by dysbiosis (life destroying) that leads to lower crop production and ultimately, crop failure. 

Fossil fuels are the basis of chemical fertilisers and the fuel needed to run giant machines required for clearing, farming and transport. As greenhouse gas concentrations rise, it is now well known that climate warming also breaks the symbiotic bonds between species, including those important in human food consumption.

By polluting the local environment with excess nutrients, introducing toxins and carcinogens into the food chain, using genetically modified organisms that present an irreversible risk to human and ecosystem health, removing biodiversity and being fossil fuel dependent, industrial agriculture is a successful short-term food production system but a longer-term symbiosis destroyer.

We are now being warned by bodies such as the UN that the Sixth Great Extinction event is well underway. The role of all forms of intensive agriculture in the destruction of symbiosis at all scales is now well documented and cannot be ignored any longer.

Food ethics 

The overcrowding of animals and the unnatural conditions within which they live are also features of industrial forms of agriculture. Keeping life confined in ways that violate natural instincts to move, fly, bathe in water, dust bathe and be part of a community of beings is common practice in intensive agriculture.

Killing animals after they are herded, transported long distances and placed in stress-maximising facilities (industrial abattoirs) is also a core practice in intensive agriculture.  

A ‘flexitarian’ diet in which people eat less meat might help reduce the rapidity of species extinction, climate change and animal suffering. However, even this shift will not put all food production and consumption on a path that meets the ethical requirements of the Symbiocene. 

Recent scientific research on plants has revealed that they too have sensory awareness and forms of what must be called intelligence. We now understand that plants have at least 20 different sensory capabilities, can learn, store information, use memory to react to stimuli and share resources via symbiotic fungal and root community networks.

The ‘wood-wide-web’ is an apt description of this extensive networked communication system that operates between plants of the same and different species plus fungi and bacteria species. 

Plant sentience

If plants possess a form of sentience, then they too become the subjects of our ethical concern. 

We cannot judge animal suffering to be more ‘serious’ than plant suffering because that form of speciesism would be ‘sentientism’ or the unjustified elevation of the status of animal sentience over plant sentience.

The abuse of sentient animal beings can be addressed by not killing or eating them or perhaps ameliorated by humane forms of management and death.

However, for a vegetarian, the prevention of the abuse of plant sentience is an impossibility.

Given that humans have little choice but to eat plants or animals, the ethical requirement of respecting sentience would mean that we would not be able to eat anything except life-disconnected, cell-cultured food.  

Sumbiosic eating

Eating is a necessity; it is also an emotional actintimately connected to our feelings and moods. How can we eat ethically and in a nutritionally and emotionally satisfactory way in the Symbiocene?

In the transition to the Symbiocene, in addition to respect for the sentience of our fellow beings in considering food choices, there is the need to respect the importance of symbiosis in maintaining healthy soil, food, animals and people. 

The grazing of herbivores and their manure, compost and bioturbation at local and regional scales, all assist in building soil fertility via symbiosis between micro-organisms and invertebrates.

Predation of herbivores by carnivores to prevent over-browsing and soil erosion also has a vital role in maintaining ecosystem health. 

Humans have also played an ecosystem role as carnivores managing grazing pressure within grasslands. Some traditional African cultures (e.g., the Massai) did this as they had a meat-predominant diet based on the flesh, milk and blood from cattle herding. 

Their predation on cattle ensured that an ancient symbiosis (pre-climate warming) between soil, cattle, humans and all other rangeland biodiversity was maintained in balance.

Regenerative grazing

Contemporary versions of this natural system of grazing can be found in what is called ‘regenerative’ grazing.

Here, farmers attempt biomimicry of the natural symbiosis between plants and animals in rangelands. Their rewilding of degraded land is controversial, but at the very least they are providing new opportunities for symbiosis on a large scale. 

As all human cultures have known, to some extent, ecosystem and human health are intimately interconnected. Create the right symbiotic relationships in particular places, life will be good. 

If all people in all places create these kinds of relationships, then the totality of life on Earth will be very good. 

It is this crucial aspect of living systems that both meat and plant-based food production systems have excluded in the shift to the industrialisation of food production.

Symbiocene food

Symbiocene food will be food produced by a new generation of farmers that enhances mutual interdependence between the non-living foundations of life (biogeochemical systems) and, in particular, all species as living beings sharing a common life. 

The consumption of food from regional agriculture that fully respects symbiosis will entail a tougher standard for food than ‘organic’, as organic systems can currently be monocultures and have no necessary connection to the symbiosic foundations of biodiversity in bio-regional contexts.

Sumbioculture celebrates the interconnectedness of life (living together) and the unique characteristics of place and culture as expressed in food or wine (terroir). Being a food ‘locavore’ also helps overcome food kilometres and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Sumbioculture, in the form of permaculture, agroecology, some organic and biodynamic farming, is consistent with the health of symbiotically unified ecosystems and our need for food. 

If you eat sumbiosic food you are a sumbiovore and being a sumbiovore requires a value system that must be considered in addition to choosing to be a carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian or vegan in the Symbiocene.

This Author

Dr Glenn Albrecht is a freelance environmental philosopher and farmosopher. He has pioneered the domain of psychoterratic or psyche – earth relationships with his concept of solastalgia. He is the author of Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World and writes at Psychoterratica.

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