Plants Want to Live, Too

Most of the moral objections used to justify giving up animal products apply just as much to plants, Natalie Angier argues.

purple-grapes[B]efore we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot.

This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants — their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar — the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze.

It’s time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.When plant biologists speak of their subjects, they use active verbs and vivid images. Plants “forage” for resources like light and soil nutrients and “anticipate” rough spots and opportunities. By analyzing the ratio of red light and far red light falling on their leaves, for example, they can sense the presence of other chlorophyllated competitors nearby and try to grow the other way. Their roots ride the underground “rhizosphere” and engage in cross-cultural and microbial trade.

“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.

Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.”I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.

Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.

I must confess that I don’t spend much time considering the moral implications of my dinner.   Steak is delicious and waiting for me at the store, practically begging to be lightly seasoned and seared on a grill or an iron skillet.   Preferably with a baked sweet potato and maybe some spinach.  And a nice red wine, of course.

If we refuse to eat things that were once living, we’ll cease living ourselves.  And if it comes down to them or me, it’s not much of a contest.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I think the old lines, attributed to Buddhists, are:

    “plants are alive” “yes, but they don’t scream as loud”

    Your grape picture is interesting though. You know you don’t kill a grape vine to harvest? You know that the vine has grapes to attract animals?

    (I ate a salmon, probably a farm raised salmon, at lunch today. I don’t feel particularly bad for the salmon himself, but I feel a little bad about salmon farm impacts on the seas.)

  2. Clovis says:

    Every time I eat a steak it is an act of vengeance for my chlorophyllian brothers.

    When I eat my greens I dispatch them quickly and carefully, with love, so they do not have to suffer and “howl” at the ignominy of being grazed upon.

  3. Brett says:

    Indeed. Fundamentally, we are omnivorous heterotrophs, meaning we survive by eating the product of “autotrophs” like plants, as well as the creatures that eat them. If we start getting too far away from that, we’ll simply end up going into guilt-ridden circles.

  4. It’s even worse for plants than for animals. After all, by the time we eat an animal, it’s dead. (Oysters excepted.)

    But take the case of a harmless little sprout. That sprout is very much alive, still capable of reproducing. So when you chomp it with your big molars you’re chewing a living thing.

    It may still be alive when it drops into your acid-filled stomach.

    Imagine its screams. Go on, imagine it! “Aaaahhhh! Aaaaahhhh! My leaves are burning!”

    Yeah, like that. You heartless, mudering b*stards.

  5. kth says:

    That plants might somehow be conscious despite the lack of a central nervous system is Schiavo-talk, nothing less.

  6. Christopher Osborne says:

    I only eat plants that have committed suicide….

  7. anjin-san says:

    I must confess that I don’t spend much time considering the moral implications of my dinner.

    Perhaps you should.

  8. JVB says:

    PETP and PETA….the time has come. Throw these two loonie toon groups together and let God sort them out. Who knows…they might be lower on the food chain than once thought. And while the White House idiots give props to the ‘one child per family’ law in China let’s remember the nasty contribution to the carbon footprint that pets in this country leave on OUR environment and push for ‘one pet per family’ in this country. Win win….now every one feels equally crapped on by Gore’s nonsense.

  9. anjin-san says:

    Win win….now every one feels equally crapped on by Gore’s nonsense.

    Full moon tonight JVB?

  10. Drew says:

    So with our new found concerns about plants can we now go out and kill the gd plant eating deer that are over-running the whole damned planet?

  11. anjin-san says:

    So with our new found concerns about plants can we now go out and kill the gd plant eating deer that are over-running the whole damned planet?

    You really are a conservative Drew. Global warming concerns you not in the least, but deer? Now there is a real menace…