An examination of the challenge of feeding the growing human population while preserving the ecosystems on which we rely, as exemplified by the pressures confronting Asian elephants.

The Elephant in the Room

An examination of the challenge of feeding the growing human population while preserving the ecosystems on which we rely, as exemplified by the pressures confronting Asian elephants.

Last year the human population hit seven billion. According to the BBC’s population counter, at the time I was born, it was just over 4.5 billion – this represents an increase of 2.5 billion in just 30 years. We often hear that we are perfectly capable of feeding our current population, thanks to the green revolution that raised the productivity of the American farmer to levels undreamt of by our agrarian ancestors in Africa. This paradigm has extended beyond American soil, sought after by many a nation. The occasional famine, we are told, is merely the result of unexpected weather, coupled with market and logistical failures. However, the food that is being produced – or overproduced as the case may be – fails to reach the mouths of those who need it the most desperately. Take the crisis in the Horn of Africa in 2011, where poor infrastructure and political turmoil hindered aid amidst the worst drought in 60 years. Within Ethiopia, grain could not be transported from one part of the country to another for want of roads. The UN World Food Program projects that 10-12 million people are in need of food aid and will be for a good many years to come.

But famines are only the tip of the iceberg; extreme manifestations of our inability to feed ourselves – whether the reasons be climatic, political or economic. Floods and high food prices in 2008 led to riots around the world. Spikes in the cost of staple commodities like sugar, rice, and milk in early 2011 saw a repeat performance. And still, the upward trend continues. In the US, farmers lost a third or more of their yields prior to the food-centric thanksgiving holiday due to hurricane Irene and other meteorological quirks. Even the wild harvests from the oceans are on the brink of collapse.

Meanwhile, the human population is projected to hit 9 billion by 2050.

The largest land mammal

It is difficult to compete with humans for space. Species that do not readily adapt are driven out.  This competition is most evident for the largest mammals left on earth: elephants. They require hundreds, if not thousands, of square kilometers to exist. Their range is being rapidly transformed by human activity. Tropical deciduous forest, a habitat commonly favored by elephants, is one of the most threatened biomes on earth – not coincidentally, it occupies lands quite favorable for humans and our agriculture. Conversion for agricultural use, both in the form of smallholder farms and massive plantations, is a leading cause of deforestation. While the ivory debate currently eclipses the agricultural conflicts of one continent, globally, elephants present a great source of conflict for those who must live with them day-to-day. For the Asian species, land conflicts and loss of habitat are a far greater threat than poaching.

News about elephants in Asia is typically bad news. It concerns the death of elephants, or people, or both. The causes of death vary from shootings to poisonings, electrocutions, and train collisions. Sri Lanka, home to one of the highest densities of elephants in Asia and quite possibly the second-largest population of this species in the world, is also home to over 20 million people. It has seen the rise of the insidious food bomb ‘hakka patas’ which literally means ‘jaw boom’: farmers hide explosive devices inside large vegetables such as pumpkins, in order to deter elephants from damaging their crops.  Not enough that the people were subject to bombers for thirty-odd years, the scourge must now be visited on wildlife as well.  Although birds and monkeys do their share of damage, it is the elephant – which can wipe out an entire season’s cultivation in one shot – that gets most of the blame. In Sri Lanka alone, over 200 animals (roughly 4% of the suspected national elephant population) are reportedly killed each year. People also fall victim to elephants, although the number is generally far fewer. Abandoned by farmers during the war, the northern parts of Sri Lanka, previously a center of agriculture, were reclaimed by wildlife. Following the massive social and economic tolls of war, people are returning only to find they must contend with wildlife instead of armed rebels. The population of people far exceeds that of elephants on the island. 

When all else fails we try to move ‘problem’ animals (translocation). There are several problems associated with this. First, the animal is put in a location that already has other residents who will greet the newcomer with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Second, these new locations are never far from human habitation – there is simply not enough wilderness left. What we have repeatedly seen is that the animals become a nuisance to people wherever they are placed – in the case of cognitively sophisticated creatures like elephants and monkeys, which can learn from one another through imitation, we actually compound the problem. An elephant that breaks fences does not stop doing it when placed in a new location, nor does a monkey stop stealing from human kitchens; on the contrary, this behavior is transmitted to other individuals at the new location. The most recent plan for elephant conservation by the Sri Lankan government calls for the erection of several thousand kilometers of electric fencing and so-called ‘conservation centers' which amount to prisons for suspected ‘rogues’. This is the level of artificiality and ignorance to which conservation has sunk in some parts of the world.

Meanwhile, humans are doing what humans do best – colonizing every available scrap of land. The elephant is the poster-child for a battle that stretches to the very frontiers of arable land. So much so, that it has merited its own acronym – HEC, or “human-elephant conflict.” More people are killed each year by dengue fever, borne by mosquitos, than by elephants. Indeed, countless more human lives are lost to automobiles and other devices of our own creation than to large wildlife, yet we do not coin convenient acronyms for our other follies. Why then must the elephant, tiger or any other beast be singled out? The so-named man-wildlife or man-beast conflicts are merely the result of our own expansion. In other parts of Southeast Asia, elephant numbers are so low there is little conflict to speak of. Thailand for instance, famed for its elephants, may have more elephants in captivity than in the wild. Those scattered amongst islands of forest, surrounded by oceans of palm, number in the hundreds at best and fall into that most pitiable of demographic categories: the living dead. These populations are doomed to extinction because they are too small to survive any disturbance – a small bout of illness or bad weather could wipe them out entirely. Here there is no ‘human-elephant conflict’ because we have effectively eliminated the competition.

It is not only our requirements for food and water that are causing this wave of extinctions. It is our technology itself - mines for minerals, dams for electricity and irrigation. We buy into a model of so-called development in which individuals aspire for a life far removed from the soil at their feet, surrounded by a cocoon of human artifice. Meanwhile, the elephants driven from forests that are mined or submerged make their way into villages.

The world is at war. Its displaced go unacknowledged – the wildlife that must move to make way for the next banana or palm oil plantation. It does not have an accompanying legal framework to rage over, as is the case with the commercial trade of species or animal parts. But it claims as many victims – and not just elephants. In India, the lion is nearly extinct and the tiger population restricted to scattered reserves. There are likely more photographs of tigers than there are tigers in the wild. Carnivores are threatened globally, because we refuse to share space with them. Instead, we turn to technological solutions: electric fences, traps, poison. 

This is a war that we – particularly in the west – seldom see. Far removed from the sources of our food, water and gadgetry, we imagine that we can pick and choose which charismatic species should be worthy of protection and debate the relative merits of each. Far too many of us compartmentalize our lives as consumers or business owners as separate from our lives as ethical human beings, despite the fact that being ‘green’ is now in vogue and hailed by some as a nascent religion. We may also imagine, when pressed against a wall, that the conservation of some remote biome elsewhere in the world is only of secondary concern relative to the more pressing economic woes we face. The multinational species conservation fund (MSCF), which few people may ever have heard of, is responsible for funding crucial research and conservation activities for everything from turtles to apes and elephants; yet it receives only 0.02% of aid spending by the US and is in danger of being lost altogether. But how much of that ‘aid’ would be rendered unnecessary, if we instead focused our attention and our finances on rebuilding and supporting the ecosystems that sustain people? Can we learn quickly enough that no economy is separate from the ecosystem it is embedded within, difficult though the relationship may be to package, quantify and trade on a stock market?

Food Revolutions, Past and Future

The central question remains: can we feed our population and maintain the integrity of ecosystems? This is the elephant in the room. Must we choose between food and biodiversity? No - the dilemma, as it turns out, is false. In their timely article in the journal Nature Jonathan Foley and colleagues argue that there are several other means to improve the efficiency with which we produce food. The most glaring observation is that an astonishing 75% of the arable land on the planet today is devoted in some way to farming animals or food for animals, which may later be consumed as meat and dairy. The remaining quarter not only supplies much of our food, but also goes toward non-food items, such as biofuels. Shifting that balance would seem sensible. Reducing our consumption of animal products would greatly increase the efficiency with which we feed people.  Second, agriculture is most rapidly expanding in the tropics, where up to 80% of new croplands are replacing forests, which reduces biodiversity and undermines vital ecosystem functions, not to mention stresses our precarious climatic position. But this expansion has done little to increase our overall food production – much of the increase in production over the past decades has been due to improving yields per acre, often through industrial means. Finally, of the food that we do grow, a shocking 50% is lost to spoilage and waste. With 7 billion people to feed, we can hardly afford to throw away half our food supply. Stopping agricultural expansion and instead focusing on increasing efficiency is once again the more sensible route. It's a problem that should have relatively simple and benign solutions. In practice, this is not so straightforward.

If we are running out of space, it might seem that trying to increase the yield per acre would be the correct thing to do. Private corporations as well as non-profits and governmental agencies have invested a lot of money in finding ways to engineer hardier crops with higher yields.  Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has partnered with the National Science Foundation in support of a new research program called ‘BREAD’: Basic Research To Enable Agricultural Development. When one calls up the number for any of the program directors, however, it is evident there is a narrow slant to this “basic” research – the call goes straight through to the voicemail for the plant genome research program.

Our bounty, however, has not come without cost. The green revolution has not been the miracle that was promised, despite the Nobel Prizes earned by two of its creators: Norman Borlaug and Fritz Haber. It has spawned an era of industrial, patent-laden agriculture, heavily reliant on fossil fuel – ultimately deepening our climatic troubles, and undermining itself with the toll exacted on the air, soil, wildlife, and human communities that surround it. It has saddled farmers in both developed and developing countries with a cycle of debt. This agriculture 2.0, which saps soil fertility and creates vast monoculture landscapes in the name of efficiency, is a serious threat to the genetic richness that is the legacy of many millions of years of natural and artificial selection both for the plants and animals we consume, as well as the wildlife that surrounds it. The legal ramifications of genetic engineering have opened up a can of ethical worms as to how genetically engineered crops are to coexist with non-engineered crops – a conundrum neatly sidestepped by the US Supreme court’s decision earlier in 2011 to overturn of a ban on planting genetically engineered alfalfa next to organic farms. Despite the legal victory, evolution itself is triumphing over the products of human engineering, such as the glyphosphate resistant weeds that are rampantly evading Monsanto’s prize product, Roundup. 

Private corporations, well-meaning philanthropic billionaires, private foundations, and governments all believe that the solution is to engineer our way out of this tight spot. This comes as no surprise, as humans are accustomed to inventing technological solutions to survival problems. Certainly, the development of hardier varieties of staple crops is crucial for saving billions of us from starvation whenever there is a drought (as we can well anticipate in the future), however, it comes with strings attached. Genetically engineered crops may be one important part of the solution, but they cannot be the complete solution.

There is another kind of engineering to consider – our engineering of the landscape. Other researchers, like Vandana Shiva, point out that variety itself can be a cure. That there is no one-size fits all miracle seed that will give us food security, but rather a diversity of locally appropriate crops that can meet our needs. Home gardens – an ancient practice of humans – are being redefined by urbanites the world over who are growing food behind the windows of their own apartments. These too are forms of technology – but they are grown, organic, decentralized, open-source, slow technologies; not mass-manufactured ones. Perhaps we should have a slow technology movement, to go hand-in-hand with the slow food movement, so that we can actually enjoy and savor our creations before they become obsolete. Unfortunately, there are not nearly as many investments in these alternative flavors of agriculture as there are on the technologically intensive, laboratory-driven variety.

Given our mixed success with supporting the current population, as the population continues to grow these are issues we must take a deep look into. The solutions must be as diverse as the people, cultures, and landscapes we are seeking to sustain. We need a second food revolution – one that explores a plurality of solutions that are locally appropriate for the landscapes in which they are embedded.

The elephant forces us to face the problem, try as we might to pretend it isn’t there. Government and private enterprise alike should not pretend that it is the behavior of animals rather than of humans that must be changed, that islands of wilderness surrounded by oceans of agriculture and human activity will truly suffice to maintain the ecological machinery on which we depend for survival. The elephant will not survive by sheer goodwill, electric fencing, the most sophisticated monitoring in the world, or even a complete overnight halt of the ivory trade. The elephant’s cohort of companions, who make up the biosphere, are not simply causes to be championed in one’s spare time, species by species, habitat by habitat – no, their survival is tightly bound with our own. If we are to save the wolves and the wildebeest, the eagles and the elephant, it will not be for mere aesthetics or sentimentality, but because they are integral parts of a system that supports us, parts which we cannot manufacture replacements for, however brilliant our engineers may be.

Finally, we must acknowledge that we cannot quell the conflict with wildlife without taming our own numbers – we must leave aside optimistic delusions that we can find technological means of living beyond ecological capacity. There is simply no such thing. Paul Ehrlich was correct; simple refusal to see the bomb will not lessen its impact.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.