Is a plant, an animal?

One of the objections against Veganism that my last post evoked was that 'plants have feelings too and that Vegans are shying away from the ethical implications of killing plants'. I think that's a very valid question and deserves to be examined. I took a few days to ponder on this question and at the end of it, I stand by my last post's conclusion - "It is unethical to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to a living being. However, to survive one must do what one must."

The implications of the second part of my statement should be clear - if you have no other option to survive,  apart from eating meat, you should eat meat. Not doing so would lead to wilful starvation which is a form of violence against oneself.

Now let's evaluate if eating plants is subject to the same ethical compulsions as eating animals.
Before I start, I must remark on the sudden interest among meat-eaters to elevate the status of plants; for decades, a common reason for consuming meat was that animals are blatantly inferior to humans. "Turkeys are so dumb, they drown in the rain" is still a common urban legend. For decades, we have been listening to such speciest propaganda. But in the last few decades, our understanding of animal physiology and psychology has evolved to such an extent that we are 'intellectually compelled' to accept that animals are a lot smarter than we gave them credit for. Even simple animals have been shown to participate in communication, community and can experience pain and pleasure through developed nervous systems. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that animals, especially the ones we like in our burgers, can recognize suffering and react emotionally and physically to it.

For plants, we do not have such consensus. I don't deny that plants are living beings. To be honest, at a quantum level, everything is 'living' in some sense - everything is buzzing with energy and reacts to its environment. Plants also have incredibly developed chemical systems that among others convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. But crucially, they don't have a central nervous system that has been demonstrated to convey the sensation of pain or pleasure based on stimuli in its environment. Nor do they have pain receptors which can detect and convey sensations of pain. Note that some plants do have pressure detectors on their leaves, but they are not the same as pain detectors. For example, genetic malfunctions in humans have shown that we can experience pressure on body parts, but not detect pain. Similarly, a chemical reaction is not the same as a central nervous system reacting to pain. Any chemical reaction can be construed and garbed as 'an emotional reaction' by semi-informed journalists pandering to semi-informed readers, especially when the conclusion of the article serves to re-affirm the convictions of most readers. Scientists prefer to use the term 'sentient' to describe such differences, but the term has been diluted to such an extent by mass media that I'm apprehensive of using it.

Secondly, plants that are grown for agriculture are not put through continuous, unending suffering from the first day of their existence. Plants are raised in their natural environment and are not forcible crippled and malformed for commercial reasons. Contrast that with a turkey born into a poultry farm. Within minutes of birth, its beak is removed using a driller, its toes are cut off and males surplus to demand are ground alive within a grinder.

Thirdly, plants are very versatile. Most plants provide many edible things, most of which can be harvested without killing the plant. For example - fruits, leaves and flowers, seeds. In fact, most plants rely on animals to consume & come after these products to propagate their genes through pollination. With animals, we get three eatable items. Eggs, which are the menstrual secretions of hens. Milk, which is secreted by the cow for its calves, but forcibly removed by us (often by killing/maiming the calves). And lastly, meat, which is the by-product of death. And no farm animal is relying on humans to consume these products for its genetic continuance.

Lastly, most plants that are harvested tend to be at the end of their life-cycles. Nobody harvests paddy from a budding shoot. Once an organism is dead, it will be consumed by someone - by bugs, the elements or other animals. I have no moral qualms with humans consuming an organism that died through natural means.

I'm sure that in the forthcoming decades, science will reveal how plants are incredibly more complex than we think they are. However, I suspect it will not make me feel better about the atrocities committed today by the animal agriculture industry. 


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