Everyone knows what a food chain is, right? The grass is grazed by the cow, and the cow is eaten by people. There is the grass, the cow, the person; hence three items in a “chain.” But the phrase food chain is inaccurate and outdated for several reasons. Biologists note that all of life operates much more realistically in an inter-related web, or upon the branching image of a bush or tree. Many organisms are upon the branches of the bush, or tree, and are consumed and consuming, at all times and places.
Several animals eat the grass, including insects, and although cows eat a lot of insects, bugs are on the grass, and not any grazing animals intended food. Many animals, if not for artificial human interventions, would eat grazing animals. Human beings, by taking the niche of bears, big cats and wolves, do not make those animals any less omnivorous, or carnivorous. Also, all organisms are eaten from the inside, as well as from the outside, in symbiotic and less than symbiotic, relationships. All organisms are both predators and prey, from inside, outside and several sources, and usually not in a hierarchical chain.
Another problem with the phrase food chain is that it sets up false assumptions semantically. It is based on a misconception of human beings as often being “at the top of the food chain,” implying some kind of pinnacle, or intended superiority over other organisms. Of course, being human beings leads to all sorts of such subjective assumptions. Some of them are harmless, yet others suggest a natural domination of nature by just one species. Claiming to be the “top predator” often suggests too many, that the top tier should be preferential. Yet, biologists and other scientists see that all life is extremely dependent upon complex and interactive relationships going in all directions. This inter-relatedness requires for human beings to comprehend the wisdom of protecting all diversity of organisms, in order to keep human beings healthy. This is because, like all organisms, humans are wholly dependent upon trees plants, to create clean air, water and soil, and animals to make all plants live and thrive. Creating a monoculture, such as corn, suggests a food chain is right, but any monoculture sets nature off balance dramatically, endangering life.
A third objection to the phrase “food chain” is that besides being wholly inadequate for definition, and not correct in including the full web of life, is that it often suggests that big things are not consumed by little things. It seems to imply that a large carnivore has a good chance of avoiding being eaten, but large ants, and even some fish kill and devour in swarms. Also, some large things very often skip links in the chain to eat much smaller things. For example, most cultures eat seeds and nuts, and many eat insects.
In the United States and most of Europe, a keen interest in livestock for food outpaced eating bugs, and even grains to such a degree, so that now insects are seen as disgusting.
Using the terms food web and food tree, or even pyramid, is more accurate and descriptive of the biological truth of inter-connected life on earth.