Ecotrophobiosis is a term applied to a field of study which seeks to clearly define and understand the production and consumption of food, including the effective nutrition of man, both as an ecological system and an activity of ecological importance.

This research study was undertaken by the group of Prof. Dr. L. Horst Grimme, University of Bremen, Germany, including Dr. Rolf Altenburger, Dr. Michael Faust and Dipl.Biol. Klaus Prietzel to fulfil the need of contributors to the FAST Research Activity entitled “Food and Health – New Perceptions, Problems and Opportunities” of the European Commission to understand the basic attitude and objectives of the research project “Euroaspects in Food and Health – Towards an Eco-Trophobiosis”. This research was documented in the following publication:

L.H. Grimme, R. Altenburger, M. Faust and K. Prietzel (1986) Towards an ecotrophobiosis – developing a strategy in relation to food and health from a life science point of view. FAST Occasional Papers 108, DG XII, Brussels.

In this earlier publication, a definition of “ecotrophobiosis” was included to better understand the report of the official and scientific part of the research. To further promote this field of endeavour, the definition is the subject of this present short communication and, for clarity, is divided into four parts:

  1. Derivation of the word “Ecotrophobiosis”
  2. The scientific use of “Trophobiosis”
  3. Trophobiosis as an ecosystem approach
  4. Eco-Trophobiosis, food sciences and food politics.

1. Derivation of the word “ecotrophobiosis”

The word “ecotrophobiosis” is based on three words of Greek origin. The “eco” component is derived from oikos which can mean Lebensraum, living space, milieu or environment: in this sense, “eco” is a component of the words “ecology” and “ecological”. Oikos can also mean house, household or housekeeping, and, hence, is an abbreviation used within the words “economy”, “economic” or “economical”. Since the economy of both men and nature are presently of great importance in political discussions and raise many controversial issues, it has been enthusiastically seized upon to build the word “ecotrophobiosis”. However, in scientific terminology “eco” is mainly used to refer to environmental relationships as in “ecology” or “ecological”. It is noteworthy that “ecology” in the strict scientific sense, is not synonymous with “environment” but is the study of the relationships between living things, their processes and their interactions with each other and to the non-living components of the environment.

The “tropho” component is derived from the Greek word “trophein” meaning to nourish, to keep an animal or person, plant or microorganism both alive and well.

The “biosis” component is the most complicated part of “ecotrophobiosis” as it arises from the Greek word “bios” meaning “life” and “bio” occurs in many words including biology, biotic, biosphere, biochemist, biodegradation, biogeography, biography, biotin etc. The term “biosis”, however, can mean more than “life”. Ecologists use “biosis” in two ways in their publications. Firstly, to characterize various conditions under which life occurs or phases of life during development which oblige organisms to adapt to variable environmental factors as in phenotypic adaptation; examples include anabiosis or kryptobiosis (of spores etc.), anaerobiosis. Secondly, “biosis” is used to describe interdependencies or biotic interactions between different species including symbiosis, antibiosis or trophobiosis. It is this second meaning that is involved in the construction of the term “eco-trophobiosis”.

2. The ecological use of the term “trophobiosis”

“Trophobiosis” was first used by the British natural scientist, Wasmann (1901), when defining a very direct nutritional relationship between two different organisms. In Wasmann’s terms a trophobiotic relationship involved organisms which fed on the excrement of others such as ants which feed on the honeydew excreted by aphids.

Since Wasmann’s era, a more complex terminology has developed to more accurately describe different trophobiotic relationships. Interactions between organisms (populations or species) can be summarized in three types of trophobiotic interactions, namely, independent (autonomy), competitive and (inter)-dependent.

The (inter)-dependent interactions of different species, evolved during life history in co-evolution, have been described as “symbiotic” by the German botanist de Bary (1879) but, more recently in 1980, these interactions were generally termed “biotic interactions” or “biota” (Tischler, 1980) who distinguished the following four types of biota: antibiosis, in which one partner is destroyed or inhibited in the relationship as in the relationships of predator-prey, herbivore-plant, parasite-host and plant-plant (allelopathy) etc.; symbiosis, which describes mutually beneficial associations as in pollinator-plant, bird-rhinoceros, rhizobial bacteria-legume relationships; parabiosis which describes relationships beneficial to one partner without harming the other (“commensalism”) as occurs between tiny mites living in facial hair follicles of most people with healthy skin and between Escherichia coli-human alimentary tract , and metabiosis where one species permits the life of another such as occurs between nitrite bacteria that oxidize ammonia to nitrite which is the life basis for nitrobacteria. These four distinct forms of biota were not recognized by Wasmann. All biotic interactions and interdependencies also include considerations of colony or community areas or habitats as well as transport and food relationships.

Also in 1980, a “New theory of trophobiosis” was proposed by the French biologist Francis Chaboussou, a former research scientist at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in his book:

F. Chaboussou (1980) Le plantes maladies des pesticides- bases nouvelles d’uneprevention contre maladies et parasites” (Plants made sick by pesticides- new basis for the prevention of diseases and pests), Debard, Paris.

In his book, Chaboussou postulates and proves that pests whether they be insects, mites, nematodes, protozoans, fungi, bacteria or viruses will only thrive on plants with metabolic imbalances that lead to excessive levels of amino acids in their sap or tissues. These excesses can arise by inhibition of protein biosynthesis and a predominance of proteolysis over protein biosynthesis. Chaboussou found that inhibition of protein synthesis can be caused by pesticides or herbicides or by unbalanced nutrition as occurs with oversupply of nitrogen in water-soluble fertilizers. In “healthy” plants amino acid levels are low with protein synthesis and proteolysis in balance: amino acids formed by the latter being used by the former. Further, when the plant is resting, as in hibernation or estivation, amino acid production ceases. On such plants blight fungus or plant lice will simply die of lack of food. Because Chaboussou demonstrated that many pesticides inhibited protein biosynthesis, he included “Plants made sick by pesticides” in his book title. From organic farming, it is common knowledge that pest attack on crop plants is associated with metabolic status and primarily depends on nutrition; other factors, however, such as positive and negative interactions with companion plants, as well as climate also play a role.

To demonstrate his hypothesis, Chaboussou potted plants (potato and tomato) separately in nutritionally balanced and unbalanced soils, and found that blight and aphids only attacked the plants in unbalanced soil and, further, the pest would not infect the healthy plants in balanced soil even when foliage contact was arranged. The healthy plants, however, were readily attacked when they were oversupplied with water-soluble nitrogen fertilizers, especially those containing ammonia.

To summarize, “trophobiosis” describes a mutual relationship based on food, or nutritional requirements, existing between two different species. The term becomes meaningful and useful in an ecological context when considering a complex biological community of plants, animals and microorganisms in a shared habitat which are interconnected and interdependent in an intricate web including the physical environment. Such a complex interdependent system of biological and physical components is known as an “ecosystem”. Thus, the ecosystem concept emphasizes the functional relationship of numerous trophobiotic interactions between organisms and their environment Such trophobiotic pathways are generally circular and, therefore, self regenerating. The span of a cycle may be slow and over a short time span of human societal interest may appear only linear and uni-directional. Such limited perceptions could prove a subtle and dangerous threat to food production and human existence. Ironically, this threat could arise by man’s own interference in those ecological systems on which his food productivity depends.

3. Trophobiosis of man as an ecosystem approach: Ecotrophobiosis

The trophobiotic relationship between man and his food has changed over time. Presently, two main lines of scientific thought exist. Firstly, a biological holistic approach emphasizing production of organic food of natural complexity for consumption. Secondly, a scientifically reductionist approach which sees nutrition achieved by the supply of biochemical nutrients, including industrial food processing and fortification with essential nutrients, and by use of chemically defined diets.

Currently, and over the past century, with the increasing knowledge of scientifically-based nutrition, an acceptance of the second reductionist approach grew and daily menu planning was introduced. Consumers were advised to select their nutritional requirements in terms of seven food groups which were later reduced, for ease of understanding, to four food groups: milk and dairy products; meat, poultry and fish; vegetables and fruits; and, bread and cereal products. The consumption of a variety of these food groups was favoured. Over this same period, growing chemical knowledge of nutritional requirements demonstrated that it was not the balance of the food groups that was important. What was really essential for the complete and healthy functioning of the human body was the correct balanced supply of their macronutrient components such as fats, proteins, carbohydrates and water and, also, of their micronutrient compounds including vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

In following this approach, the NASA Research Unit on Nutrition in Outer Space obtained results revealing that about 50 nutrients are necessary components and determined the daily allowances for adult health for about half of them. Food labelling programs are now common throughout the world to provide consumers with “workable guidelines” for assessing their nutrient uptake. A most successful consequence of this concept of balanced biochemical nutrition has been introduced by the food-processing industry. The industry recognized that the many processes it used during processing, including storing, washing, trimming, peeling, blanching, extracting, straining, pasteurizing, boiling, sterilizing, canning, baking, dehydrating, irradiating, fermenting, brining, milling, bleaching, curing, frying, roasting and steam-table holding, all drastically altered the nutrient content of natural foods. Consequently, to improve processed foods, the industry adopted programs of restoration, enrichment, supplementation or fortification which is currently summarized as “nutrification”. Since nutrification is the most flexible, most rapidly applicable and most socially-acceptable intervention method of changing nutritional intake without vast educational effort and without drastically changing the current dietary habits of a population, it may well strongly influence future food programs. For instance, food standardization for nutrient content of natural and synthetic components, computerized on a daily average allowance basis could be designed for every purpose, for example, infants, children, pregnant and lactating women.

While perusal of modern biochemistry textbooks indicate that the pathways of biosynthesis and biodegradation of carbohydrates, fats and proteins are well established, as well as the role of many vitamins in metabolic processes, much is still to be learnt about the molecular role of many plant metabolites such as polyphenols and many other chemopreventive substances which play functional roles in the immune system of the human gut and on the aging and degenerative processes of other organs of the body. Further, the transition from natural unprocessed foods to processed, calorie-condensed and heat-treated foods appears to be “the mother of chronic diseases”. There are also indications of interactions occurring among food components of natural foods that positively influence body performance. Continuous dietary, biochemical and clinical surveys have shown that the simple uptake of nutrients is inadequate for the nutritional and health status of a population. The complex human digestive system seems to require not only the correct stoichiometric amounts of nutrients but also the correct texture of naturally-grown foodstuffs.

Thus world nutritional needs demand the fullest knowledge of the primary production of healthy crop plants, on adequate feeding of livestock and on the extent of food processing in order to set high standards to serve and achieve high human health standards. The OECD Study on Food Policy (1981) stated that future decisions in food production and nutrition have to be in a system-oriented, integrated view of food chains, food economy and food policy. This is a difficult approach since the whole “food system” is compartmentalized into (1) food production, (2) food processing, (3) food distributing and marketing, and (4) food consumption. Each compartment is backed by its own scientifically- and technologically-developed background, its own legislation and all favoured by a specific food policy. The intention of “Ecotrophobiosis” is to give additional scientific, evidence-based measures to accurately judge food quality in relation to human health and to overcome the above-mentioned compartmentalization, each with their own individual quality references.

4. Ecotrophobiosis, food sciences and food policies

From the above discussion, it is reasonable to conclude that a food policy seeking a solution for a reliable “food and health” relationship must consider the whole food system as an integrated complex of agribusiness, food processing technology, marketing and nutritional guides. Ecotrophobiosis can be used to achieve this integrated view because the currently-predominant nutritional concept of biochemical nutrition raises the question whether to supply the currently-recommended levels of nutrients alone can, in general, fully support good health. Results on human immuno-competence, in particular, show that it is far too difficult to achieve a balanced diet by recommending the quality and quantity of necessary nutrients. Micronutrient inadequacies, especially, can cause immuno-incompetence and aberrant behaviour or frequent infections. Consequently, it is necessary to recommend complex naturally-grown food rather than rely on fortified processed foods.

A difficult and foreseeable problem in food politics may arise when such an integrated concept of food production is proposed . The scientific groups currently involved in food research will find it difficult to support such an overall approach because of their own very specific, narrow and defined research fields, which are backed by developmental ideas and new technologies like genetic engineering of food sources (plants, microorganisms and animals) for the aims of industrial food production on the one side and directed by objectives to overcome the split between the high income pharmaceutical industry and a possibly upcoming health related food industry. The term “nutraceutical developments” came up during the 1990ies . Meanwhile it is a booming industry although neutraceuticals are still a vaguely defined concept and comprises so far dietary supplements and so called functional foods consumers often had already contact with. To follow this type of development it will be worthwhile to observe the activity of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a global network of mostly industrial scientists devoted to further the idea of health benefits of nutraceuticals.


Ecotrophobiosis is a scientific concept to promote an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to the entire process of food production, processing, distribution and consumption. Based on fundamentals of biological knowledge human nutrition has to include at least four categories of food quality criteria to make up a “ health value”:

  1. The environmental quality of food production ( “ sustainable organic farming”)
  2. The physiological factors of food (“ sensory” and “intestinal quality”)
  3. The hygienic and toxicological criteria ( “food safety”)
  4. The preserved content of nutrients in total diets ( “nutritional value”)

These food quality criteria are best fulfilled by the choice of food that is regionally and organically produced, seasonably marketed, prepared by careful processing, and traded fairly.

The OECD study on “Food Policy” (1981) states that future decisions in food production and nutrition have to be seen in a system oriented, integral view of food chains, food economy and food policy.

Ecotrophobiosis as a concept is an approach for the evaluation of any food system to give additional and integral measures to assess “food quality” on the basis of an integrated understanding of health, food, agriculture and environment.

Further reading

CARLSSON-KANYAMA, A., EKSTRÖM, M.P., SHANAHAN, H.: Food and life cycle energy inputs: Consequences of diet and ways to increase efficiency. Ecological Economics 44, 293-307 (2003)

CHABOUSSOU, F.: Les plantes malades des pesticides – Bases nouvelles d`une prevention contre maladies et parasites. Editions Debard, Paris (1980)

DEAVIN, A.: Soil cover, soil organic matter, the rhizosphere and plant growth. In: Zur Ökologie des Landbaus. Heft 31 der Schriftenreihe des Deutschen Rates für Landespflege (1978)

EHRLICH,P.P., EHRLICH, A.H., HOLDREN, J.P. : Ecoscience – Population, Resources, Environment. W.H. Freeman and Comp., San Francisco (1977)

FAO/WHO : Evaluation of health and nutritional properties of probiotics in food, including powder milk with live lactic acid bacteria. Expert Consultation Report (2001)

GRIMME, L.H., S. DUMONTET (eds): Food Quality, Nutrition and Health. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York (2000)

HUFF, B. A.: Caveat emptor. “Probiotics” might not be what they seem. Can.Fam.Physician 50, 583 – 587 (2004)

IFPRI (Inter. Food Policy Research Institute): Sustainable food security for all by 2020. Proc. Intern. Conf., Sept. 4-6, Bonn 2001, Washington DC (2002)

MANDER, J. (ed.): Manifesto on the future of food. Firenze (2oo6)

MURDOCH, J., MARSDEN, T., BANKS, J. : Quality, nature and embeddedness: Some theoretical considerations in the context of the food sector. Economic Geography 76, 107 – 125 (2000)

OECD (Org. for Economic Cooperation and Development) : Food Policy. Paris (1981)

PETRINI, C. : Buono, pulito e giusto: Principi di nuova gastronomia. Enaudi (2007)

TRAILL, B. : Technology and Food : Aims anf findings of the EC FAST program`s Research into the prospects and needs of the European food system. British Food Journal 91, 3 – 9 (1989)