In my environmental class, we were recently learning about the $10\%$ law that basically says only $10\%$ of the energy goes from one trophic level to the next.

This got me thinking about why energy flows from one level to the next. Specifically, why do plants create enough energy for the entire ecosystem? Wouldn't they do fine without us, and wouldn't that save them the work of creating all that excess energy?

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    $\begingroup$ First of all, plant do not 'create' energy; they collect it (from available sunlight). Secondly, they do-not collect it for their predators. They collect it for themselves. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ They don't create energy! They use the energy from high-energy photons from the sun and convert that into molecules with high energy chemical bonds. Many plant species have evolved to need animals to reproduce, but yes, as a whole, a plant-only biosphere would probably be stable. $\endgroup$
    – swbarnes2
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ As @AlwaysConfused points out, the assumption in the question is problematic, and this has resulted in vague answers that can't directly answer the question. I'm voting to close the question because it is unclear to me what the question is bearing in mind the assumption is false. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 4:21
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that the question is problematic and a bit unclear. Generally, it invites confusion to phrase why questions in terms of taxonomic groups ("why do plants create...") - why-questions on evolutionary outcomes usually don't make much sense. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ building upon @fileunderwater's comment, I've been taught and found it true that in the life sciences, "why" questions generally need to be rephrased as "how" questions to be answerable, leaving the remaining "why" essence of the question to philosophy. When we rephrase as "how" and learn lots from that, it can shed much light on potential answers to "why". $\endgroup$
    – cr0
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 13:38

2 Answers 2


Plants collect energy for themselves via photosynthesis, not for others. It is used for it's own growth and survival.

It's energy is then redistributed to other organisms when either the plant dies and decomposes or when it is consumed. Many organism cannot collect their energy like plants do, and thus must feed on organisms (like plants) that are able to collect and store energy. This is in many cases detrimental to the plant (it should be intuitive why being eaten might be bad), and many, many plants do have traits to discourage other organisms from eating them (plants with toxins, thorns, etc.).


Let's look at a very simple "ecosystem", cows and grass. Imagine there is 1000 kilograms of grass available. This can support about 100 kg of cow. There's your 10% figure, but mass here instead of energy.

When the cow eats the grass it must break down the food to get both matter and energy. Everytime energy is transfered, some of it is "lost" as heat. So as the energy in the bonds of the molecules of the grass are transferred into energy in the bonds of molecules making up the cow, much of that energy is wasted, radiated away from the cow as heat. The cow also has many tasks to perform that also use the energy in the grass. It has to walk around grazing, chew, make more cows, etc. By the time all this is accounted for, the cow has used 90% of the energy in the food to provide for its own energy needs as well as the waste.

In the process of breaking the grass down for energy, the cow transformed the food, from which it extracted the energy, into carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide was breathed out into the atmosphere. Only 10% of the matter in the food remains to add mass to the cow. This is why the cow only put on 1 kg of weight for each 10 kg of grass.

So that cow, having only retained 10% of the matter that was in the food, only has 10% of the energy since energy is stored in the chemical bonds of the matter.

The 10% rule is an approximation. A number of my students were in FFA (Future Farmers of America) and raised animals. One of the tasks they were required to do is keep track of the weight of feed and compare it to the weight gain of the animal. Many that I spoke to did better than the 10% but much of that was probably due to the higher quality of the feed they used.

  • $\begingroup$ What is FFA? is it an institute or such? $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ @AlwaysConfused FFA = Future Farmers of America. You must be a city boy! :) I edited that in above, should have done first time around. [this comment to be deleted] $\endgroup$
    – bpedit
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ I live in India so normally I don't heard about future farmers of America. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ I agree I live in city for study-purpose and also true I'm much couch-potato because I'm autism-spectrum so could not develop habit to play with others even on tremendous peer-pressures, but it is also true I do-not fit in a city, rather a village or perhaps a forest suits better to me. However I assume here more villagers would be unaware about FFA than city-peoples. $\endgroup$
    – user25568
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 2:51
  • $\begingroup$ " The cow also has many tasks [...], make more cows. " The way this is said made me smile :) $\endgroup$
    – Dart Feld
    Commented Oct 17, 2016 at 13:03

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