9 February 2018 03:31PM
In these topsy turvy times, the mental road map I have always relied on to navigate the world seems to be in a constant state of redrawing. Whenever I think I have the structure of the world figured out, some new piece of information comes along to upset things. The latest challenge to my assumptions has come from the increasing body of knowledge that suggests that plants may be conscious beings, i.e. aware of the conditions around them and making decisions in response to their environment to effect certain results. For example, a study published a couple of years ago in Israel demonstrated that young pea vines, with their roots divided between two pots, would generally choose to develop their roots in the pot with a constant stream of nutrients rather than one with a fluctuating supply, provided the overall level of nutrients was adequate in both. But if there were a low level of nutrients provided, they would choose to develop in the pot that occasionally got a big burst of nutrients rather than the constant supply. That is, they essentially assessed risk and chose the most advantageous environment. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/science/pea-plants-risk-assessment.html
More evidence of human-like plant behavior arrived this week. I had only read a few pages into the book Peter gave me for Christmas, The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Books, 2015) when he forwarded me an article in the February 2 New York Times, “Sedate a Plant, and it Seems to Lose Consciousness. Is It Conscious?” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/science/plants-consciousness-anesthesia.html. The underlying premise of the book is that plants have feelings and awareness of their surroundings, communicate with one another, take actions to enable them to avert danger and fight predators, and hunt for nutrients. In short, they exhibit a form of intelligence, a discernible level of consciousness. The article reports on experiments in which anaesthetic substances were administered to various plants. Just as anesthetics prevent humans from responding to their environment, they seem to close down plant functions in similar fashion. Once again, pea plants provided an illustration. Time lapse photography has shown the tendrils of pea vines waving in the air in normal circumstances, even when there is no wind, as they seek out objects to twine themselves around, enabling them to get more light. When anesthetized, they curled up and drooped into inactivity, only to return to their usual sentient plant functions when the anesthetics wore off. The experiment suggests that plants, like humans, can become unconscious, as reflected in the temporarily drooping pea tendrils. And one might reasonably conclude that if a plant can become unconscious in a manner similar to humans, then it is has a consciousness analogous to ours as well.
My first reaction on reading about plant consciousness was, I must admit, a giggle. Surely, this shakes our world view, but what, I wondered, must this information do to the world view of Vegans, who refuse to eat meat products in order to avoid being responsible for killing fellow sentient beings. If it’s wrong to eat animals because they are sentient beings with consciousness, then how can it be right to eat plants that are similarly endowed? To be sure, we may find it harder to understand plant consciousness because plants are not as similar to us as animals are. They do not move, communicate, or show emotion in the same ways as we do, are not as anthropomorphic. But is it, one might reasonably ask, fair to eat plants simply because we understand them less well? Will we possibly some day realize that our mechanized raising and harvesting of crops, mowing them down or yanking them out of the ground, unaware of any possible pain we are causing, amounts to a cruel and brutal slaughter? Peter swears (satirically) to hearing radishes scream as he eats them, a joke which only highlights his near-pantheistic reverence for plants.
My initial burst of schadenfreude at the challenge this research presents to Veganism was short lived. I realize that the notion of plant consciousness also presents challenges to our self-understanding as farmers and omnivores. One pillar of my defense for raising livestock for food has always been that we treat our livestock with kindness and respect, allowing them to live happy, in ways significantly more comfortable than they would on their own in the natural world. We see they are fed, watered, and protected, and give them an environment in which they can follow their instincts. The quid pro quo for our breeding them and making sure they live in security, joy and comfort is that they feed us. We give them life — they give us life.
If plants are conscious, does that mean we need to change the way we raise them to respect their feelings, give them joy, and, yes, let them achieve their full plant nature? What would that mean? Peter reminds me that Prince Charles in his younger days claimed to speak to his plants and was roundly ridiculed for it. Will we now have to consider doing something like that?
How else will our horticulture change? Can we continue to chop off all those shoots and tendrils the tomato plants naturally send out as we try to tame their growth and encourage fruiting and ripening in the sun? Is it cruel to keep picking young haricot verts in order to keep the bean plants producing, when all the plants want to do is nurture the seed pods to maturity and collapse? How is that different from keeping lights on all night in the chicken coop to encourage egg production even if it wears the chickens down and alters their metabolism? Could we really let all the vegetables realize their true nature and still have a use for them at all? While with tomatoes and beans we are eating the plants’ seeds, with lettuce, which must be harvested when the leaves are young and tender for peak flavor and texture, we are eating the plant itself, and it will never live to achieve its natural raison d’etre: to produce seeds.
Will Animal Welfare Approved, which has strict standards for raising and slaughtering farm animals, someday have to establish a “Plant Welfare Approved” certification as well for humane growing and harvesting of fruits and vegetables? One hears the earliest of pleas for some sort of reform in Tim Flannery’s foreward to The Inner Life of Trees where he states: “Perhaps he saddest plants of all are those we have enslaved in our agricultural systems. They seem to have lost the ability to communicate, and… are isolated by their silence.”
Another of my justifications for raising and eating meat has been that there is something in the natural order of things which has determined that many animals instinctively feed themselves by eating other animals. The food chain, which is the fundamental order of living beings on earth, is a kind of grand energy transfer, usually from the smaller or more vulnerable creatures to larger ones. It would seem that because it is “natural” for animals to eat other animals, we are simply following the natural order when we eat meat.
In some ways, the realization that plant cells operate just like animal cells, waking up and going to sleep in ways indicative of consciousness, is further evidence of the unity of all life. Cells, those little bundles of energy, act similarly and serve similar purposes in both plants and animals. But this realization of the unity of all life, both plant and animal life, points to a conundrum which Vegans might pose back to us omnivores. If all our internal component parts are made of the same stuff, why should any living creature be off limits as food? Why not eat worms and cockroaches? How about dogs or cats? Or even roasted obnoxious neighbors, for that matter? Why shouldn’t cannibalism be considered perfectly “natural?”
Anthropologists like Mary Douglas (author of Purity and Danger, Routledge 1966) have tried to analyze the eating rules of different cultures by positing that they represent arbitrary and idiosyncratic ideological structures that reflect a society’s categorization of the natural world. Douglas suggested, for example, that the rules of Kashruth, the Jewish dietary law, which prohibits eating four legged creatures unless they have cloven hooves and chew their own cud, or aquatic creatures without fins and scales, resulted from how the animal world was categorized in the ancient Hebrews’ taxonomy. For instance, having scales and fins defined an aquatic creature as a fish. Without those features, its status was ambiguous, which thus made people uncomfortable, leading to them to label such creatures as shellfish as impure, dangerous and therefore forbidden. Forty years later Dr. Douglas substantially modified her views on this subject, but I always thought her theory had a lot of explanatory power.
The great and impassioned debates between Vegans and Omnivores seem to me to turn on very similar, quasi-religious philosophies of how we categorize our food sources. In this case, the dividing lines as to what is permissible to eat and what is forbidden, turn on different notions of consciousness. Vegans would argue that beings with brains are sentient, and therefore we must eat only brainless vegetables. Sensitive Omnivores argue that it’s ok to eat sentient animals as long as they are sufficiently different, in character, consciousness and intelligence, from humans, and they are treated humanely. Yet this new body of plant studies, and a similarly increasing body of studies on animal intelligence, teach us that neither group’s line-drawing reflects clear boundaries in nature. Plants may not have formal brains but have intelligence, communication, and feeling nonetheless. Animal intelligence is far more acute than we give animals credit for, and we have yet to comprehend all the nuances of that intelligence.
In the short term I doubt this research on plant consciousness and animal intelligence will change anyone’s deeply held food rules, but in the long term it will have to change the fundamental terms of the debate.
How ,you may ask, should I respond to this shifting of paradigms? I suggest you take this moment of shifting paradigms to broaden your own food choices. adjust your own boundaries. Figure out what you like to eat, and make rules accordingly. Check out our product list below. We’ve got lots of preserved frozen energy, embodied in both plant and animal products, raised with the greatest of respect for their consciousness, just waiting for your new adventures in eating. Mangez avec nous.
WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK
THE EGG DR0UGHT IS NOW MORE THAN OVER. SOME ARE STILL ON THE SMALL SIDE, FROM THE NEWLY LAYING YOUNG HENS, BUT ORDER AWAY.
IT MAY STILL BE DEEP WINTER, BUT THE SUMMER PASTURES AS THEY BECAME EMBODIED IN OUR LAMBS, PIGS, TURKEYS, CHICKENS AND GUINEA FOWL ARE ALL AVAILABLE FOR YOU IN FROZEN FORM. SCROLL BELOW FOR DETAILS.
SOME IS ON HAND, BUT WE MAY NEED A FEW DAYS ADVANCE NOTICE TO RETRIEVE OTHER STUFF.
THIS WEEK’S OFFERINGS
FROM LAST FALL’S GARDEN HARVEST:
FROZEN SQUASH (SHREDDED, TROMBONCINO), GREAT FOR FRITTERS, $2/LB.
FROZEN TOMATO, COOKED DOWN FOR SAUCE, $3/LB
EGGS: still somewhat limited quantities, but back in production. A mix of large and small ones from the new hens $5/doz
TURKEYS! TURKEYS! TURKEYS! STILL HAVE ABOUT 10 OF OUR HERITAGE BREED PASTURED TURKEYS, RAISED ON CERTIFIED ORGANIC GRAIN, S IN THE 7 TO 9 LB RANGE, PERFECT FOR A COMPANY SPECIAL OCCASION MEAL.
GUINEA FOWL, frozen $7/lb (half the price of the Union Sq. Farmers Market). These are excellent 3 lb. or so birds.
ROASTING CHICKENS – frozen These Freedom Rangers were bred by the French to be slow growing, good foragers, and to have complex flavor. They range from 3 to 7 lbs, most in the 5 lb. range, and are very moist and flavorful. $6/lb.
LAMB: Loin chops at $14 a pound, ground lamb at $7/lb, lamb shanks $10/lb, riblets $8/lb, rib rack roasts $14/lb, small leg roasts $14/lb,
PORK: Loin pork chops, $12/lb (2 to a pack, btwn 1 and 1.5 lbs), Jowl (roughly 2 to 3 lbs each), $12/lb,
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb
baby back ribs $8/lb
fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb
picnic or Boston butt roasts (roughly 2 lbs) $12/lb
fresh hocks, $6/lb.
smoked hocks $8/lb
smoked bacon, $12/lb
ground pork and pork stew chunks $7/lb
breakfast sausage $8/lb
the last of our diminishing stash
Sirloin steaks, $14/lb.
Porterhouse or Tbone: $16/lb
Short Ribs $6/lb
Sirloin tip roast, $12/lb
kidney, heart etc. $1/lb
DUCKS: Last year we did Pekin ducks. The males are not so different in size from the females, and these are nice meaty birds, most between 5 and 7 lbs. Also $7/lb.
Email us your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.