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Y&H will try to ignore the Times‘ annoying habit of making every story they publish sound like the first word on the subject. After all, as revealing as Natalie Angier‘s report is, it still follows the more groundbreaking work of writers like Michael Pollan and Jeffrey Steingarten (whose somewhat tongue-in-cheek essay, “Salad the Silent Killer,” remains the benchmark for mocking those self-righteous eaters among us).
Regardless, the Times sends a warning shot over the bow of Battleship Vegan. (The very headline sets the tone: “Sorry Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too.”) Angier then digs into the inner life of plants:
“Plants are not static or silly,” said Monika Hilker of the
Institute of Biology at the Free University of Berlin. “They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.
Plants can’t run away from a threat but they can stand their ground. “They are very good at avoiding getting eaten,” said Linda Walling of the University of California, Riverside. “It’s an unusual situation where insects can overcome those defenses.” At the smallest nip to its leaves, specialized cells on the plant’s surface release chemicals to irritate the predator or sticky goo to entrap it. Genes in the plant’s DNA are activated to wage systemwide chemical warfare, the plant’s version of an immune response. We need terpenes, alkaloids, phenolics — let’s move.
“I’m amazed at how fast some of these things happen,” said Consuelo M. De Moraes of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. De Moraes and her colleagues did labeling experiments to clock a plant’s systemic response time and found that, in less than 20 minutes from the moment the caterpillar had begun feeding on its leaves, the plant had plucked carbon from the air and forged defensive compounds from scratch.
Just because we humans can’t hear them doesn’t mean plants don’t howl. Some of the compounds that plants generate in response to insect mastication — their feedback, you might say — are volatile chemicals that serve as cries for help. Such airborne alarm calls have been shown to attract both large predatory insects like dragon flies, which delight in caterpillar meat, and tiny parasitic insects, which can infect a caterpillar and destroy it from within.
Am I the only one that grows tired of the increasingly anthropomorphic nature of our food pyramid? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy better understanding the plants and animals with whom we share this big blue marble. But can we stop describing everything and every creature in the natural world in human terms?
The logic is self-defeating to say the least: If plants and animals are like us — they don’t want to be eaten, they have defense mechanisms, they scream in pain, they solve the New York Times crossword puzzle — then we have no natural “right” to eat them. It would be tantamount to cannibalism in this logic, and last time I checked, cannibalism was frowned upon in polite society.
Where does this leave us concerning diet? Perhaps munching on some used plastic water bottles in the municipal landfill? Or following around some old cow hoping it dies of natural causes right before our eyes? Digging through our neighbors’ compost heap?
There’s no crime in wanting to eat and survive. The crimes here, if you want to call them that, concern our treatment of animals in agriculture. It’s often horrific. It’s often inhumane. It often is counter to own very own long-term survival as a species.
The answer, I think, is not to stop eating everything because everything has a right to live and we don’t have a right to eat them. The answer is to better understand our role in the greater ecosystem called Earth. As a species, humans have so little respect for plants and animals, and that is our great folly. Maybe our downfall.
Photo by epSos.de via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License