This article appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of Horticulture Update, edited by Dr. Douglas F. Welsh, and produced by Extension Horticulture, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.

Do Plants And Vegetables Feel?

One of the more unusual questions received recently by the Department of Extension Horticulture from the public was, “Do plants and vegetables feel?”

Dr. Frank Dainello, Professor and Extension Vegetable Specialist, gave this reply: “Your request for information on the subject ‘Do plants and vegetables feel?’ was forwarded to me for response.

Your topic is an interesting one and can be addressed from several points of view: religious, philosophical, or scientific. It can be confusing, especially when man attempts to equate plant and animal life in the same terms as human. For some reason, in today’s politically correct society, sane reasoning is in short supply. Although I have a Doctorate of Philosophy, I am not a philosopher, and since I am no religious scholar, I will attempt to address this topic scientifically.

As a recent infamous President of the US posed, the answer to the question is in the definition of the words of the request. It is doubtful that plants feel in the same manner as humans. It is true that they do not have a nervous system. However, they do respond to experienced stimuli. These responses are call tropisms.

For example, plants tend to grow toward or face a light source. Does this mean they are afraid of the dark? No, it is the result of auxin or growth-promoting chemical concentrating on the dark side of a plant which, in turn, causes this side to grow faster than the side exposed to the light.

Plants do respond to injury. When wounded, their respiration rate increases just as it does initially when humans are injured. However, the increase is due to an increase in the use of stored food reserves in an attempt to repair the damage or to grow new cells. If the injury is too severe, the physiological food-conversion responses are disrupted and death occurs. Often human respiration rates increase as a result of the mind’s influence on perceived consequences from an injury or a potential injury. Thus far, no one has been able to identify a single structure or organ in a plant that can be equated with the human brain, the organism responsible for human thought (some might suggest that certain cell structures are analogous to the brain in that they control cell responses, but that’s a real stretch).

Plants such as the tomato also have been known to abort their young! Although these abortions are often the result of stresses, they are physiological stresses and not emotional. For instance, fruit abortion is a defense mechanism of the plant to insure it will have sufficient water and nutrients to be able to mature a few fruit, rather than attempt to mature all of its fruits and cause none of them to make it. Developing fruit have a huge water demand. As a result of water shortages due to droughts, the plant growth is essentially shut down and fruit-drop occurs. All plant responses are a direct effect of chemical reactions!!

A tomato is still alive when removed from the vine. Evidence for this is its ability to develop color. If it were in a state of panic due the trauma of being removed from the vine and the fear of being eaten, I would suspect it would refuse or be unable to continue to mature. It would probably just shrivel up and die, at least that would be the human reaction.

In summary, I will utilize the Philosophy portion of my degree and offer some opinions.

Thus far, no one has been able to document a soul or a conscience of a tomato. Without these how can murder exist? If a plant were to have a soul or conscience, all animals in the wild would be vicious murderers, and deserve to be relegated to extinction in payment for their infringement on the rights of the defenseless weaker species (plants) they eat. Oops! They should be imprisoned for life since no being has no right to take the life of another. Or, perhaps man should be made to experience extinction because after all, plants and animals feel pain and suffering, and since man causes so much of it he should be removed from the planet. It can be easily accomplished, we just don’t eat anything living, or that was once alive!”