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Broccoli vs. Animals?

Vegetarians and vegans must develop a better answer to that age-old meat-eater question--but you kill plants don't you? Raising the plant question is, in my experience, a first line of defense for most omnivores. Now, most seasoned vegetarians have their standard 10-point response about why it is better to eat plants than animals. They offer points such as the following: plants don't feel pain because they lack a nervous system, the experiments in The Secret Life of Plants have not been reproducible and even the author refused to perform the experiments again, omnivores actually kill more plants because cows eat plants, etc. This line of argumentation has its place, but it doesn't answer the question of whether or not it is OK to eat plants in the first place. Vegetarians have to look a bit more closely at why every single omnivore makes this argument and why we get so angry/defensive/exasperated with this argument. It is because there is something to it.

Consider the following justifications for eating plants made by vegans on the Vegan-L email discussion list. Most of these arguments (numbered below and followed by my response) could just as easily have been made by someone trying to justify eating meat.

1) Even vegans have to eat something.

This is verbatim a meat eater's argument--"But what do vegans eat? I don't have time to cook all of my own meals, I could never get enough to eat without eating meat...." Clearly vegans could eat fruits and parts that can be eaten without killing the plant--just like herbivorous animals who most often eat only leaves or parts of the plant that will grow back.

2) Plants lack a central nervous system and it is unlikely for them to feel pain in the way animals or humans do.

Just as Descartes managed to ignore the obvious when he said that animals were unfeeling machines, there is considerable evidence that plants are much more aware than we commonly believe. Using a definition of pain that is based on possession of a nervous system deliberately and arbitrarily excludes plants. Yet plants are clearly aware of when they are being attacked because they mobilize chemical defenses. Just as meat eaters try to deny the fact that animals feel pain, vegans try to deny the fact that plants feel something akin to pain--something that could be used to justify not killing them. If we ever encounter aliens, the chances that they have a nervous system like ours is vanishingly small, but we would nonetheless assume that they feel what we would categorize as pain.

3) Plants have no need to feel pain since they cannot move away from the source of the pain like animals can.

See the previous response--plants clearly do react; if pain is simply a warning tool, some sort of distress signal would still serve a purpose in plants.

4) And even if plants did feel pain, eating meat causes much more suffering than living a vegan lifestyle because animals eat countless plants before humans eat the animals.

This doesn't apply to hunting wild animals who generally don't kill plants (unlike cows who are fed dead soybeans). And what about all of the plants and animals that are disrupted or killed by farming (i.e., the ones that were there before the farmer, the ones that the farmer kills on purpose)? Although veganism probably does decrease plant suffering when compared to eating meat, this doesn't justify killing plants. The question is not whether we should be omnivores or vegans, but whether or not vegans should adopt a more plant-friendly diet.

5) Fruits are designed specifically to be eaten--that is how plants spread their seeds.

Then just eat fruits. Eating potatoes and carrots doesn't spread seeds around and it kills the plant--how can this be justified? What about plants that try to avoid being eaten--ones that are poisonous, taste nasty, or make you infertile (e.g. sheep who eat clover high in phytoestrogens)?

6) Foods like tomatoes, apples, cherries, eggplants, grapes, etc. do not require the killing of the plant. It's more like taking eggs from a chicken.

Given that vegans don't eat eggs because they think it's wrong, this argument makes no sense.

7) If fruits aren't eaten, they quickly wither and die--they are intended to be eaten. The same is not true of animals.

Yes, fruits are intended to be eaten. Some herbivores are also "intended to be eaten." There are carnivorous animals that can only eat other animals. If these carnivores did not eat the old and diseased prey animals, those prey animals would, in fact, "wither and die." Additionally, the whole herd would suffer if the population got too large or dying members were constantly eating food that healthy members could eat.

8) We should be vegans because we can; we should reduce whatever suffering we can.

Should we not then be fruitarians or gatherers because we can? Or are we simply too lazy, just like most people are too lazy to be vegan. We usually don't find that an acceptable excuse! (Of course laziness is certainly not the primary problem--people are constantly bombarded with the idea that they can, should, and must eat dead animals.)

9) We're herbivores. We must eat plants to survive--it is our instinct.

This simply begs the question--meat-eaters justify eating animals by pointing out that humans are omnivores (which we are--see e.g., Humans are Omnivores). Furthermore, humans manage to overcome all sorts of "instincts"--for example, we generally do not copulate in public. Arguments that appeal to "nature" should be met with deep skepticism. Recall that slavery and the subjugation of women and countless indigenous cultures were and are considered a necessary part of the "natural order."

10) Broccoli screams might be pleasure, not pain.

Ditto for animals.

11) It's a rare person--and, I would say, a very strange person--who would flinch upon seeing a carrot pulled from the ground.

First, many people do abhor large-scale agriculture. Second, the fact that our culture is desensitized to violence, especially to something that's been going on for a long, long time is not an argument for anything. Also, people don't want to face up to what they are really doing--just like how most people don't think about where their meat came from.

The above responses show that vegans cannot come up with any truly compelling reasons as to why eating plants is justified in the context of animal rights. Which leads us to the ultimate question...

12) And so what if you cannot totally eliminate any supposed pain that plants may feel. Is that a justification for eating meat? For killing humans, by extension?

We can agree that humans must cause some suffering to exist. Whereas a meat-eater uses this fact to ignore animal suffering, vegans use this fact to ignore plant suffering. But just as inflicting plant suffering does not justify inflicting animal suffering, the fact that we do not inflict animal suffering does not license us to inflict wanton plant suffering. Rather than just dismissing plant suffering as inevitable, vegans should try to reduce that as well.

The Rhetoric of Plants

Vegans clearly need to be more savvy in their justifications for eating plants to avoid simply justifying eating animals. Instead of trying to counter the idea that plants suffer, we should just accept this premise because the best way to reduce both plant and animal suffering is to stop eating meat since animals are fed dead plants. Additionally, meat-eaters typically don't like to acknowledge animals suffering, yet when they raise the plant question they are admitting this since their underlying assumption is that since plants and animals both suffer, there is no unique reason to avoid eating animals.

Meat eaters raise the plant question not because it is an indictment of veganism, but rather to deflect attention from their own shame caused by eating animals--they are trying to show that vegans are not perfect either. But rather than getting defensive, sarcastic, or belittling the person, we must admit our own shame from harming plants. Sociologists point out that "Conflicts escalate, according to Thomas Scheff, when there is no mechanism for individuals to express shame and shame is transmuted to anger and pride, which, in turn, can lead to more shame. To block this 'feeling trap'�as Scheff calls it�it is necessary to reduce alienation between groups and find ways to offer apology and restitution" (Groves 189). True dialog can only occur if both sides accept their shame. Until then we will be left with the pride, anger, and deliberate attempts to redirect shame as revealed in this 30 June 1998 post to the Vegan-L:

The proper response to the "You're killing/hurting plants" argument is to laugh in their face and not even entertain such a ridiculous notion. By taking them seriously, you're legitimizing their argument--and that's what they want you to do. This whole angle was obviously dreamed up by meat industry propagandists. Their aim is to engage vegetarians in a silly debate that will end up making the vegetarians look ridiculous by revealing us to be utter and outrageous wimps--so wimpy we actually care about a plant's feelings. Think about it--do you think these argumentative meateaters give two shits about a plant's feelings? Of course not; they're just trying to make us look silly. So, if you want to win the debate, laugh in their smug meateating face and make THEM look silly.

Digging Deeper

Outside the context of a discussion with a meat-eater, there are real implications to the plant question. It points to an inadequacy in the theory of animal rights. Even if we succeed in no longer having a world based on the exploitation of animals, it will still be a world based on the exploitation of plants on a massive scale. We want to eliminate the property status of animals--should we also consider wanting to eliminate the property status of plants? That is, would we rather have mass exploitation of the whole of nature, or limited usage of both wild plants and wild animals?

Plant exploitation parallels animal exploitation. There are factory farms with monocropping, cloning, genetic engineering, pesticides, herbicides (!). Agriculture is a constant battle against the plants, insects and other animals that initially lived on the land. Beyond plants as food, plants are kept in houses as "pets," used for entertainment (Christmas trees, Jack-o-lanterns), people wrap themselves in dead plants, and doctors are always experimenting on one plant or another looking for the next "miracle" drug.

One can say that individual plants are not aware, but they are alive and try to remain that way, which differentiates them from, say, rocks. Plants have all kinds of chemical defense systems that go in to action when the plant is damaged. Plants have ways to avoid being eaten--thorns, phytoestrogens (found in over 300 plants), poison, taste, growing high off of the ground. As Barbara McClintock, a Nobel laureate geneticist who worked with corn for over 30 years, said, "Animals can walk around, but plants have to stay still to do the same things, with ingenious mechanisms....Plants are extraordinary. For instance,...if you pinch a leaf of a plant you set off electric pulses. You can't touch a plant without setting off an electric pulse.... There is no question that plants have [all] kinds of sensitivities. They do a lot of responding to their environment. They can do almost anything you can think of. But just because they sit there, anybody walking down the road considers them just a plastic area to look at, [as if] they're not really alive" (Keller 199-200). If anyone should be at least open to the possibility that plants have some level of awareness, it is vegans since we continually chide others for not acknowledging animal awareness.

But whether or not plants are aware is not really the issue. There are clearly two levels to concern about animals--the immediate suffering of individual animals and the fact that animals are exploited at all. While one can certainly object to the treatment of animals simply because of the suffering they endure, most vegans object to the inherent exploitation of animals. That is, they are not animal welfarists who believe it is acceptable to exploit animals as long as their suffering is minimal, but rather animal rightists who believe, on face, that it is wrong to own animals and systematically exploit them. It might be possible to raise animals for food who are unconscious the entire time--that is, they are just as unaware as plants might be. But vegans reject such idealized scenarios because no matter how "kindly" animals are treated, they are still slaves.

In fact, vegans may not simply be animal rightists, but environmentalists who believe that all of Nature deserves consideration. This is why it is not necessary to resolve the thorny issue of whether or not plants are "aware" in order to give them consideration. The dominionist mindset that Nature is here for humans to exploit applies to animals, plants, and even rocks. Just as environmentalists so often fail to see how eating animals is the embodiment of the dominionist mindset, vegans seem to want to ignore the fact that agriculture is simply another aspect of that worldview.

The ideal way to give plants consideration is to eliminate agriculture in favor of foraging. We tend to think that it is impossible to return to a forager lifestyle because agriculture has been around for 10,000 years. (Even Jim Mason, who highlights all of the negatives brought about by the beginning of agriculture, simply states that we are stuck with it and that we should only rid ourselves of animal agriculture.) But if the whole of human existence is compressed into a calendar year, we have only been farming for the last 8.5 hours. Furthermore, most of the forager cultures in the Americas were destroyed beginning only 500 years ago. And most importantly, there still exist numerous forager cultures. Foraging is not some romantic notion out of the past--it is a reality even as you and I sit at our computers.

A forager diet need not--and should not--include hunting. There is no nutritional requirement to hunt. Organized hunting "began only about 20,000 years ago--some 25,000 years after the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens" (Mason 72). Prior to that, our ancestors met their nutritional needs by foraging, which sometimes included insects, lizards, and maybe scavenged meat. Hunting developed mainly as a response to female power (women gathered most of the food and bore children, in which the male role was not known). "The hunt, in other words, was not so much about nutrition as it was about acquiring power--the animal's power" (Mason 86). "Hunting also gave men some role, and hence some status, as food providers" (Mason 87). Furthermore, humans are not required to live in extreme environments. Humans chose to live in the Arctic because they were exploiting animals. This certainly does not entitle humans to live there anymore than Nike is entitled to continue to use slave labor because they built their entire business on it.

Is it possible to return to a forager lifestyle? At current population levels, clearly not. Absent foraging, is it possible to develop a sustainable agriculture not based on the domination of nature? Perhaps. The bottom line is that plants deserve consideration; we must figure out what that means.

Bibliography

Groves, Julian McAllister. Hearts and Minds: The Controversy over Laboratory Animals. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997.

Keller, Evelyn Fox. A Feeling for the Organism. New York: W H Freeman, 1983.

Mason, Jim. An Unnatural Order: Why We Are Destroying the Planted and Each Other. New York: Continuum, 1993. (Read this book!!)

Tompkins, Peter and Christopher Bird. The Secret Life of Plants. Philadelphia: Harper & Row, 1973.

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