I have to confess that I am prejudiced against vegetarians, especially vegans. It shouldn’t really matter to me what someone chooses to eat, yet the sense of self-righteous moral superiority they exude over us meat eaters is more than a little annoying. They are better than the rest of us because we enable cruelty against animals. Thus we see scenes like this.
Now I realize that not all vegans are like this. There are many moderate, reasonable vegans who respect the dietary choices of others and do not embarrass themselves in restaurants. Unfortunately, 90% of them make the other 10% look bad.
We’ve been hearing for decades about the complex intelligence of plants; last year’s excellent New Yorker piece is a good place to start, if you want to learn more about the subject. But a new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri, managed to figure out one new important element: plants can tell when they’re being eaten, and they don’t like it.
The word “intelligence,” when applied to any non-human animal or plant, is imprecise and sort of meaningless; research done to determine “intelligence” mostly just aims to learn how similar the inner workings of another organism is to a human thought process. There’s certainly nothing evolutionarily important about these sorts of intelligence studies; a chimp is not superior to a chicken just because chimps can use tools the same way humans do. But these studies are fascinating, and do give us insight into how other organisms think and behave, whatever “think” might mean.
This particular study was on the ever-popular Arabidopsis, specifically the thale cress, easily the most popular plant for experimentation. It’s in the brassica family, closely related to broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and cabbage, though unlike most of its cousins it isn’t very good to eat. This particular plant is so common for experiments because it was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, so scientists understand its inner workings better than almost any other plant.
The researchers were seeking to answer an unusual question: does a plant know when it’s being eaten? To do that, the researchers had to first make a precise audio version of the vibrations that a caterpillar makes as it eats leaves. The theory is that it’s these vibrations that the plant can somehow feel or hear. In addition, the researchers also came up with vibrations to mimic other natural vibrations the plant might experience, like wind noise.
Turns out, the thale cress actually produces some mustard oils and sends them through the leaves to deter predators (the oils are mildly toxic when ingested). And the study showed that when the plants felt or heard the caterpillar-munching vibrations, they sent out extra mustard oils into the leaves. When they felt or heard other vibrations? Nothing. It’s a far more dynamic defense than scientists had realized: the plant is more aware of its surroundings and able to respond than expected.
So, there you have it. Those fruits and vegetables you are eating were once happy growing in the earth until someone came along and yanked them up and killed them. They were probably screaming in pain as they were chopped up to make your salad. How do you feel now, vegans? Are you happy to be so cruel to plants. The only way you can truly live without exploiting your fellow organisms would be to not eat at all. In fact, you shouldn’t even drink. Who knows how many microbes you are slaughtering with each drink of water?
Maybe we need to form a new organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants or PeTP. End plant exploitation!
- Plants Can Tell When They’re Being Eaten (modernfarmer.com)
- Plants Know When They’re Being Eaten and They Don’t Appreciate it (inhabitat.com)
- Vegan because plants don’t have feelings? You’re going to need a new reason. (grist.org)
- The fascinating world of plant communication: Ferns “talk” to each other to determine their sex (vox.com)