Young and Hungry

New York Times to Vegans: Plants Don’t Want to Be Eaten, Either!

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Y&H will try to ignore the Times' annoying habit of making every story they publish sound like the first word on the subject. After all, as revealing as Natalie Angier's report is, it still follows the more groundbreaking work of writers like Michael Pollan and Jeffrey Steingarten (whose somewhat tongue-in-cheek essay, "Salad the Silent Killer," remains the benchmark for mocking those self-righteous eaters among us).

Regardless, the Times sends a warning shot over the bow of  Battleship Vegan. (The very headline sets the tone: "Sorry Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too.")  Angier then digs into the inner life of plants:

“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.

Am I the only one that grows tired of the increasingly anthropomorphic nature of our food pyramid? Don't get me wrong, I enjoy better understanding the plants and animals with whom we share this big blue marble. But can we stop describing everything and every creature in the natural world in human terms?

The logic is self-defeating to say the least: If plants and animals are like us — they don't want to be eaten, they have defense mechanisms, they scream in pain, they solve the New York Times crossword puzzle — then we have no natural "right" to eat them. It would be tantamount to cannibalism in this logic, and last time I checked, cannibalism was frowned upon in polite society.

Where does this leave us concerning diet? Perhaps munching on some used plastic water bottles in the municipal landfill? Or following around some old cow hoping it dies of natural causes right before our eyes? Digging through our neighbors' compost heap?

There's no crime in wanting to eat and survive. The crimes here, if you want to call them that, concern our treatment of animals in agriculture. It's often horrific. It's often inhumane. It often is counter to own very own long-term survival as a species.

The answer, I think, is not to stop eating everything because everything has a right to live and we don't have a right to eat them. The answer is to better understand our role in the greater ecosystem called Earth. As a species, humans have so little respect for plants and animals, and that is our great folly. Maybe our downfall.

Photo by epSos.de via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License

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  • i is good reporter

    i do all the research about why people is vegans and write good story! me so smart.

    not because of starving children due to lack of equal distrubtion of grains (98 percent of soy is fed to animals which feed 10 times fewer people as possible.)

    not because the environment. (billions of pounds of animal waste dumped into our eco system, unregulated. clear cutting of forests, and hazardous emissions.)

    not because of health. (highest rate of heart disease ever, cancer, and diabetes -- all linked to animal proteins.)

    but because we don't care about plants feelings!

    maybe the suffering souls of animals deserve their fate. and so may the inconsiderate person who is murdering the planet and murdering the environment with their eating habits live the life of a slaughtered animal until they learn their lesson!

  • JC

    Check out this informative and inspiring video on why people choose vegan: http://veganvideo.org/

    Also see Gary Yourofsky: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bagt5L9wXGo

  • http://www.VeganCoach.com Patty Knutson

    Very well said, Tim...

    "The answer, I think, is not to stop eating everything because everything has a right to live and we don’t have a right to eat them. The answer is to better understand our role in the greater ecosystem called Earth."

  • http://www.vegblogger.com Jacqueline

    Interesting article. I also responded to the New York Times article the other day, you can read it here:
    http://www.vegblogger.com/blog/2009/12/but-what-about-plants-they-have-feelings-too.html

  • veggiedude

    Do vegan eat plants? I thought they ate what the plants produce. Doh!

    BTW, vegans eat up to 20 times less vegetable matter than does the average meat eater, because it takes 12-20 pounds of grain to get back 1 pound of meat. Doh!

  • http://www.termitebible.com Termites

    I added this website to my favorites list

  • http://www.reverseosmosiswatersystem.net/ Joannah

    Argh for some reason the post loads very slowly in Firefox. You don't have that many ads and stuff on it though...weird.

  • Blackworm

    I am a vegan myself, and I can say from common knowlege that the entire flora kingdom exists for fauna to live, just as fauna exists for flora.

    Plants cannot feel pain or think, as they have no central nervous system or nerve endings.

    And they have in fact adapted to being eaten. This is the phenomena called 'fruit'! If not for animals eating plant's fruit, they would have a hard time spreading their seeds!

  • http://www.vegan-diet-success.com Vegan Diet Fan

    That's why fruitarians will only eat fruit, they believe it harms the animals. I prefer to have most of my diet made from fruit anyways. Fruit are an excellent source of calories and dense nutrition.

    Luckily, eating veggies doesn't kill the plant. That's why it's best to eat locally, so you know the earth is treated well.

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  • Sigh

    Let's face it, Gary Yourofsky (and all other Psychopathic Evil Thugs for Animals, for that matter) should quit fantasizing that humans are herbivores! http://www.pinat-hay.com/gagagag.htm
    People Eating Tasty Animals: Stupid nincompoops for animals since 1980

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