Plants Have Feelings, Too!: The Non-Case Against Veganism

by Eric Walton on September 29th, 2013

Long before I became a skeptic, I became a vegan. And I became a vegan not as the result of a direct appeal to my logic or rationality, but because sparing the lives of animals appeals to my senses of justice and compassion. Nonetheless, I do not make a habit of maintaining practices that cannot be logically or rationally defended and while I've always been able to hold my ground in debates with non-vegans, it wasn't until I had acquainted myself with the precepts of logic and skepticism that I became attuned to the ludicrous arguments sometimes advanced by the opponents of veganism.

In the twenty-two years that I have abstained from food derived from animals, I've had many discussions about it and have heard numerous arguments adduced against the vegan life-style from all kinds of people, friends and adversaries alike. Most objections to veganism are easily dismantled by anyone who has studied the subject and is familiar with the tenets of informal logic. Sometimes, however, one does encounter an argument against veganism that possesses the meretricious sheen of scientific credibility and even when the proponents of such arguments cannot cite primary sources to support their claims, they are nonetheless put forth with all the confidence and certitude of proper science.

A perennial favorite sometimes marshaled by otherwise rational people who wish to defend the carnist world-view goes like this: "Plants have feelings, too! How can you kill all of those innocent cabbages and still claim that killing animals is wrong? Haven't you heard about that study where the guy proved that plants have feelings?” As I recently discovered, this argument has (like so many other logical fallacies) its own name: the ad plantarum fallacy.

Until recently, my response to the ad plantarum argument had always been something to the effect of, “Why, yes, I have heard about that study, but somehow no particular scientist, university, or institution is ever mentioned in association with it. Were the results of this study peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal?” No one who has ever been on the vegan side of this conversation needs to be told how those on the other side of it inevitably respond. There are never any names given, sources cited, or particulars offered, giving their claim all the mystique (as well as credibility) of an urban legend.
But just for the sake of argument, let's overlook the complete absence of scientific merit that the claim possesses and assume that it is somehow true that plants are conscious beings. Let us ignore the fact that plants do not possess brains or nervous systems and assume on the basis of no credible evidence whatsoever, that plants are sentient creatures and that “psycho-botany” is a legitimate science.

Taking this claim at face value actually weakens the carnist's case against the vegan. There is a very obvious and important objection to the argument that, from an ethical point of view, if plants are sentient, then eating them is no better or worse than eating animals. This objection concerns the sheer quantity of plants needed to produce meat. Producing a single pound of beef, for instance, requires sixteen pounds of grain. One pound of pork requires six pounds of grain and for every sixteen ounces of edible chicken flesh that is produced, at least five pounds of innocent plants must lose their lives. In the United States alone, fifty-six million acres of arable land are dedicated to growing hay for livestock production, whereas only four million acres are used to grow fruits and vegetables for people. Thirty percent of the Earth’s land surface, which is equivalent to seventy percent of all agricultural land on the planet, is devoted to growing crops for and raising farm animals. And according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the amount of grain fed to livestock in the U.S. alone could feed about 840 million people, roughly eleven times the number of people who die of starvation worldwide every year.

We'll leave aside for the moment that these figures represent an egregious, immoral, and unsustainable misappropriation of the world's dwindling natural resources and we'll concentrate instead on the issue of suffering, which is of such great concern to the many meat-eaters who are convinced that vegans bear the responsibility for inflicting pain and misery upon innocent fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and tubers.
If one is legitimately concerned with mitigating the amount of suffering in the world, then there is simply no way to justify eating meat, especially if one believes that plants also suffer. The misery and suffering of the tens of billions of animals raised and slaughtered for food every year are multiplied by hundreds of orders of magnitude if one accepts the claim that plants, as well as animals, possess consciousness and therefore suffer when they are harvested.

By way of illustration, three cereal crops commonly used in livestock production are corn, soybeans, and wheat. If a cow raised for human consumption were fed a diet that consisted of equal parts of each of these three crops, then the total cost in terms of vegetation for just one pound of beef would be 4,825 individual plants.

I arrived at that number, incidentally, by first determining the number of kernels needed to produce one pound of each crop (Corn: 1,300; Soybeans: 2,500; Wheat: 16,000). I added those numbers and then divided the total by three to find the average (6,600) and then determined the average number of kernels produced per ear of corn, soybean plant, and stalk of wheat (800, 55, 50), found the total (905) and again divided by three to determine the average. I multiplied the result (301.6) by the number of pounds of grain needed to produce a pound of beef (16) and the result was 4,825. And consider that a 1,200-pound cow yields about 350 pounds of beef, so when the bodily remains of a cow are sent to market as 350 pounds of brisket, sirloin, and hamburger, it represents the lives of 1,688,960 individual plants that were necessary to produce it.

Let me be the first to admit that these calculations are based on the limited information that is available to me. The ratio of corn to soybeans, for example, might be different from one season to the next or might differ from one region to another. And the composition of livestock feed most likely varies from CAFO to CAFO and certainly consists of more than just grains. It is widely known that chicken feed is often laced with arsenic, for example. It's also a common practice in factory farms to supplement feed with the dried blood and bone meal of animals who have already been slaughtered, so the figures could be marginally adjusted up or down, depending on the exact composition of the feed. But this variability does nothing to alter the irrefutable fact that the production of meat requires vast quantities of plants. Therefore, any carnist who attempts to undermine the ethical argument for veganism with the scientifically unsubstantiated claim that plants have feelings and that their suffering should be minimized is making a thoroughly untenable case, as every pound of meat a person consumes necessarily involved the “suffering” of thousands of innocent plants.

That killing and eating animals causes them to suffer is undeniable. That eating plants causes them to suffer is a proposition that has never been demonstrated in a controlled scientific experiment, despite the numerous attempts of scientists to determine the legitimacy of so-called “primary perception”. It's time we recognize the “Plants have feelings, too!” argument for what it is: a feckless attempt to undermine the ethical basis of veganism with pseudo-science and bad logic.

So, regardless of which side of the issue you happen to be on, you should neither permit nor commit the rhetorical faux pas of invoking an unsubstantiated claim that, if it were true, would only undermine the case of the person making it.

Posted in Eric Walton, vegan, Veganism, plants have feelings, Environmentalism    Tagged with veganism, vegan, Eric Walton, carnism, logical fallacies, plants have feelings, #endthevegetableholocaust


Bertrand ESCAFFRE - October 1st, 2013 at 1:55 AM
a short period of..; coma ? led me to have several habits and never change them
- never poisoning the soil
- never killing a plant except if forced to, e.g. to eat : as an animal, i need food, and plants are necessary
- cutting regenerable parts of plants, and having a useful cut : above growing heads e.g., that stimulates lateral growth. this can't work on plants in arid areas
- if eating a root, then to cook it or chew it quickly, just because speed counts
- to spare, keep and sow seeds
- to avoid proximity of plants if feeling pain or any negative emotion
- to prefer eating flesh from fruits as often as possible and getting the seed the farest possible

i will never change, i believe what i [see & understand] : only one term missing and i unbelieve

as long as animal sentience is obvious to the sight and hear, no excuse for anyone in killing animals. but this is only a first step
as ignorance leads to anger when you're unfollowed, i notice that vegans insult me when i speak loud about this, any system of insult gets involved. as i never give names or accuse of being rude by the simple fact of talking : to me, those who act by compassion about what they know are no less compassionate than me ! as to them i look like a "meat-eater". though, i'm vegan :)
this is my right to be a vegan for my reasons, just because my reasons belong in all i'm entitled to own...

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