Survival of the Fittest

Anyone who has ever bought a plant from a nursery, watered it everyday and watched in dismay as it failed to thrive, knows that gardening isn’t easy. Even if you manage to grow a plant successfully, growing food is another ballgame altogether. Vegetables like bitter gourd and tomatoes grow like weeds but others are tricker. They have varied water requirements, different soil requirements, and different temperature and sunlight requirements. And even when you finally get all this right, you would still need to protect them from pests. Finally, after weeks or months of care and patience, you may be able to harvest a few kilograms of fruits or vegetables.

aaron-burden-143923-unsplashIndeed gardening may not be easy, but it is very rewarding as I learnt when, a few months ago, I watched a vine take root in my balcony, sprout leaves and fill up the entire length of my planter in a matter of days. Flowers grew, and before long, I spotted a pumpkin as big as an avocado. The children were besides themselves with excitement. It grew bigger and fatter each day, and I helped it along by cutting back the vine and snipping off browning leaves. When we finally cut it off, it weighed a good six kilograms.

In our home of seven, the fruit of our labour didn’t last long, but the children were convinced it tasted better than any pumpkin they had tasted. Not a crumb was wasted.

If only we looked at all food in the same manner for every fruit or vegetable that makes its way to us has been grown painstakingly by some farmer somewhere. One bad monsoon can ruin a crop, but we always have food on our tables and find it difficult to imagine a day may come when we may not. The truth is, that day may arrive sooner than we think.


There was a book I read as a child, and also read often to my children, called Millions of Cats. A very old man goes to find a cat for his wife, and instead of choosing one, he chooses them all – millions of cats. As they make their way to his home, they come to a hill. The cats are hungry. They take one bite each of the lush grass, and not a blade is left. Then they come to a lake. Each cat drinks a sip of water and the lake runs dry. Not a drop is left.

Humans have been around for two lakh years. Think about it. It took us two thousand centuries to reach a billion people in the year 1804, and today, merely two centuries later, we are at 7.5 billion people. That’s roughly two billion people every fifty years! Have we ever wondered how many people can the earth take? How many can it feed before there’s just a mouthful left for each of us? 

We presume we have an endless supply of food, but the truth is, the quality of our soil is deteriorating thanks to large-scale use of pesticides and toxins. Dead zones – areas in the ocean that can no longer sustain growth – are gradually increasing. Species are growing extinct at an alarming rate. More and more marine life are being found with plastic in their bodies. Fish is getting progressively unsafe to eat and pregnant women are cautioned against eating many forms of seafood because of mercury level concerns. If our water is growing unfit to support marine life, how will it support us?

We buy things we don’t need, tire of them, and throw them away, without a thought to all the resources it took to make them. The numerous artefacts we gift each other make no sense, serve no purpose and destroy the environment. Everything, from fast fashion to fast food, is a burden the earth should not have to bear.

We can do a lot to help – not just the earth but ourselves – by gardening, composting, planting trees, or better yet, planting forests, avoiding single-use plastic such as straws and plastic water bottles. Eating locally grown, organic foods and reducing meat consumption will also go a long way in addressing environmental concerns.

A few nights ago, when debating the advantages and disadvantages of a vegetarian diet, a friend declared that, much like the beautiful lion, we are at the top of the food chain and can eat whatever we want. The ‘survival of the fittest’ argument is old and tired. We don’t eat meat for survival, we eat it for pleasure. A lion will starve to death but will not eat grass. Can we say the same about humans?

But that aside, there is a fundamental difference between lions and humans. The lion takes what it needs without destroying the environment it lives in. On the other hand, a tapeworm lives in our intestines, sucks out our nutrition and slowly destroy us – and itself.

It’s time we realised that unless we change, we’re not the magnificent predators we imagine ourselves to be. And neither are we the fittest. 

We’re the parasites.

(This article was published in The Hindu, Open Page, on the 23rd of June, 2019.) 

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