Planktonic food web dynamics shape biogeochemical cycles and global patterns of ocean productivity across trophic levels. Primary production alone, for example, is a poor predictor of cross-ecosystem differences in fisheries yields. Predictive capability improves only after consideration of factors such as the number and efficiency of trophic links separating phytoplankton and fish. Limited representation and validation of planktonic food web dynamics within the present generation of Earth System Models limits both their resolution of biogeochemical processes and their utility for assessing climate impacts on living marine resources.