It’s a comment vegans hear more often than you’d think: A brazen meat-lover (or vegetable hater) will posit the inevitable rhetorical question while gnawing on a hunk of some kind of animal product: “Well, how do you know plants don’t feel pain when you eat them?” The differences between plants and animals are too numerous to count, without question. But science is revealing more magic and mystery of our natural world, even answering this question once and for all: Do plants feel pain when they’re being eaten?
Well, research out of the University of Missouri may finally have an answer.
“Previous research has investigated how plants respond to acoustic energy, including music,” Heidi Appel, senior research scientist in the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU said in a statement. “However, our work is the first example of how plants respond to an ecologically relevant vibration. We found that feeding vibrations signal changes in the plant cells’ metabolism, creating more defensive chemicals that can repel attacks from caterpillars.”
The researchers noted that vibrations similar to being eaten did not elicit the same response in the plants “This indicates that the plants are able to distinguish feeding vibrations from other common sources of environmental vibration,” said Rex Cocroft, professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at Missouri University.
But don’t ditch your salad just yet. The research findings don’t mean that eating plants should be an ethical decision along the same lines of eating meat. While plants do have self-defense mechanisms, it doesn’t mean they feel pain or suffer in the same way all animals do. In fact, their defenses may be more like an unconscious reflex than a real sense of pain or fear.
“Plants exhibit elements of anoetic consciousness which doesn't include, in my understanding, the ability to think,” Scientist Daniel Chamovitz told ScientificAmerican. “Just as a plant can’t suffer subjective pain in the absence of a brain, I also don’t think that it thinks.”
The research indicates that the earth is far more alive and connected to its inhabitants than we give it credit for. Ancient cultures knew this and many had synergistic relationships with the natural world—both plants and animals. While we may not be hunting or gathering our own food from the wild these days, there’s still something to gain from this type of research, namely that sentience is all around us—and how we choose to integrate that into our bodies via the foods we eat, matters, whether what or who we're eating are aware of it or not.
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