By Cat Jones
If you’re vegan, you pretty much know the litany. “Where do you get your protein?” “Mmm, bacon.” “Are your shoes made of leather?” And so forth. But the most transparently disingenuous comment of all is any variation on this theme: “What about plants? Plants have feelings too. Don’t you care about plants?”
One reason this question gets so annoying is that it is, in fact, hypocritical. The person asking it doesn’t care about plants. They just don’t care about animals either, and rather than own up to their own lack of compassion and moral inconsistencies, they want to pretend there is some kind of moral inconsistency with being vegan. They always seem to think that’s such a great argument, too. It’s always asked with such a smug sense of superiority. Like you won’t have a good answer for it. So, here’s an answer. All neatly written down, ready to hand right back the next time you hear that tired line.
One Kind of Answer
The most common response to this question is to point out that plants do not have a central nervous system, like animals do, and thus they are not conscious nor capable of feeling pain in the way that a calf or a piglet is. In other words, plants are not sentient while animals are. You can read about this perspective, for example, here.
It’s true that plants do not have brains or nerve endings or other nervous system structures in any form that we recognize. But I’m going to be honest here and tell you this is not an answer I’m comfortable with. It always feels a little bit contrived to me. Because, in fact, we don’t really know what plants do or do not feel, what their experience of the world is. And there have been so many examples throughout history of people assuming that “others” are so different from “our own” that they are beyond moral consideration. So we have to be careful about this.
There have been all kinds of times when people erroneously thought that other people “don’t feel pain like we do.” Usually, that assertion has been made in situations where it’s simply convenient to believe it. Soldiers in wartime have routinely believed that “the enemy” didn’t experience suffering in the way that they do. People who maintained power over others have often excused themselves by making similar claims. And, of course, this is also the way that people have justified abuse of nonhuman animals for a very long time.
So, while it does seem that plants are a lot different than animals, while they don’t bleed and scream in pain in ways we might recognize, it feels a little too baselessly convenient to be able to assert that they are not sentient or that they don’t care about their lives.
Even if you’re not troubled by the idea that plants might be sentient, this argument generally gets bogged down in a lot of conflicting press on the matter that isn’t easily dismissed. There have actually been a lot of studies regarding plants that show that they do perceive and respond to their environment, that they communicate with each other, and that they may very well be intelligent. These are fascinating studies that point to how complex, mysterious, and wondrous the world is. I want to be able to learn about these new developments, without some smug carrion- eater pretending that this makes veganism a moot point.
Some people have tried to use these studies to suggest that vegans need to feel squeamish and conflicted about eating plants in the same way that we would feel about eating animals. (As already noted, that’s always a disingenuous stance, in that the person making that suggestion usually doesn’t have compassion for animals or plants.) I prefer to stay very open on the question of plant sentience, so the “plants can’t feel pain” argument doesn’t work for me. Taking that stance would require me to view any evidence of plant sentience as potentially devastating to vegan ethics, and would make me biased against hearing any new information on this issue.
So, again, this is not my favorite argument, and is not one that’s necessary to counter the “what about plants” question.
A Better Answer
I have a better answer, and it’s one that really shows the hypocrisy in the question itself. Because my answer is yes, I do care about plants, too. When I say that, and back it up with the rest of the answer, I get eye rolls from people who can’t believe anyone would actually care about plants’ possible feelings. Because, again, they weren’t asking out of concern for the plants. They only brought it up in an effort to discredit our compassion for animals.
But here’s the deal. You don’t have to kill a plant to eat a plant- based diet. Yes, that’s right. When you eat an orange, you’re not hurting the orange tree. When you harvest tomatoes, you’re not hurting the tomato plant. In point of fact, plants have evolved for millions of years to entice animals like us to gather and eat their fruiting bodies, thus spreading their seeds to new places they could not have reached without us. Some seeds don’t even germinate at all until they’ve passed through the digestive tract of birds or mammals. They want you to eat their fruit, that’s why it’s there.
The flowers and fruits of plants are an amazing adaptation whereby animals – birds, bees, us – are enticed to participate in a dance of sexual procreation, in exchange for nourishment. The bees roil around in the pollen of flowers, helping to fertilize them, and we harvest the fruiting bodies to spread their seeds. You’re not killing an apple tree by eating an apple; you’re engaging in plant sex. (Was it good for you?) (How can so many people not know that?) Quite a bargain for all of us. So gardening can be seen as mutual aid.
What about root vegetables, where we pull them up and eat them? Well, on one hand I really am a little squeamish about this – so much so, in fact, that when I have grown my nourishment in my own gardens, I discovered early on that I couldn’t grow carrots or beets. After lovingly tending my little seedlings, watching them grow into plants, and caring for them all spring, I just never could pull them up and eat them. However, in all truth, you don’t need to kill a plant to eat a root vegetable, either. If you cut the top off a carrot or a beet and stick it in water (or even just toss it into a compost pit, I’ve found), the plant will regrow. Yep. A miracle.
You can’t do that with a cow. You can soak a calf’s head in all the milk you want; it’s not gonna grow its body back. But a carrot, a beet, a radish, a potato… any root vegetable can be regrown by rooting a piece of it. And yes, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Why? Because I care about plants, too.
“Don’t You Care About Plants?”
Again: Yes I do. I’m pretty sure I give them more thought than any of the people asking me that question. I care about them enough that I’ve never been able to thin out seedlings, and instead I always only plant one seed at a time, and every surviving seedling goes into my garden. And I care about them enough that weeding my garden has always been a difficult chore that I often couldn’t bring myself to do in the traditional manner.
When I started rooting around in my first garden, I immediately discovered that empathy for the plants made weeding seem violent to me. I wound up compromising with them, and learning some important lessons about balancing garden ecosystems in the process. What I did was, I made a little “weed bed” near, but not in, my garden, and I moved the weeds over to there. I’d carefully pull them up out of my vegetable patch, and just replant them away from my cultivated plants. I felt better about gardening that way than I would have otherwise.
Oh yes, I can feel eyes rolling at this. Freaky, tree- hugging, vegan who transplants weeds. Right? What’s the world coming to.
If you’re one who would roll your eyes at this, you have no business ever asking a vegan why they don’t care about plants. Either it’s laudable to care about plants and, surprise, many of us do; or else it’s flaky and weird to consider plants worthy of moral regard and, if you believe that then you’re being a real douchebag to pretend that vegans should care more about plants than they do about animals since you care about neither.
So yes, once again, I do care about plants. And by eating them, I’m not hurting them. As I said above, I’ve learned some very interesting lessons about peacefully coexisting with garden ecosystems by caring enough to garden without unnecessary violence. Aside from trying not to harm plants, I also don’t kill bugs or slugs. Instead I’ve simply moved all the ones I could find over to the weed patch as well. (Wandering through the garden on a dewy morning or humid evening, one can pretty much meet every slug in the garden and relocate it to the weed bed. Combined with barrier tactics, this is extremely effective.)
In gardening like this, I was able to do everything deeply organically, with a minimum of violence. I also quickly discovered that the riotous diversity and thick, jungle quality of the weed beds were preferable to most plant- eating insects. They generally chose the weeds over the cultivated plants. My gardens thrived without pesticides, without herbicides, without poisons of any kind, simply because I learned to work with nature rather than waging war against her. There were a lot of benefits to compassionate gardening that I hadn’t expected. Many “weeds” turned out to be healing, medicinal herbs – some of the most important medicinal herbs we have are those that are the first to colonize broken, disturbed ground. They heal us as they heal the skin of the earth. Bees and butterflies appreciated the availability of nectar from little wildflowers that popped up there as well. And leaving a little patch of territory, in even the smallest garden, to be “wild” turned out to be inviting to all kinds of interesting urban wildlife, adding interest and diversity to the landscape and providing little beings a place to live.
The Toll of Meat on Plants (and everyone else)
The question of whether vegans care enough about plants begs the question of whether or not vegans harm more plants than carrion- eaters. It turns out, the answer is no. In fact, it takes many more pounds of plant matter (and many more deforested acres of pasture land on top of the thousands of acres of land cleared for grains used to feed “livestock”) to produce a pound of meat than it does to put a pound on a vegan.
More than half of the grain being grown in the United States is being fed not to people, but to cows and chickens and pigs to fatten them up for slaughter. It takes roughly 12 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of meat. In other words, the same amount of grain it takes to feed one person a single pound of meat could have fed 12 people each a pound of grain.
Aside from just the grain that is wasted in meat production, meat is a leading source of deforestation and ecological disaster that impacts plants much more catastrophically than a vegan diet might. Delicate ecosystems are destroyed all over the world by unsustainable grazing herds and greedy ranchers. If you care about plants, there’s an easy way to save the lives of millions of them. It’s the same way you could save millions of animals from suffering torture, exploitation, and death on factory farms: just stop eating animals.