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.
[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.