Plants feel, fish feel, cows feel – but we have to eat

‘Plants feel, fish feel, cows feel – but we have to eat.’  This was a comment made on a recent post promoting veganism. It’s almost possible to hear the dismissive shrug at the end.

It’s another of these sentences that I must have seen hundreds of times in various guises. Yet in a very few words it says so much about the writer, so much about our culture and so much about our personal attitude to ethics and responsibility, while illustrating the effects of the lies and myths that we are raised to embrace as fact. As a sentence, it’s something of an accidental masterpiece and as a vegan writer, I’d love to encapsulate so much in so few words, but writing in defence of our victims places one constantly at a disadvantage; the disadvantage of challenging the unfounded beliefs and self-serving fantasies that we grow up thinking of as ‘information’. Before the truth can be recognised, the shell of complacency that formed around us in our childhood must be shattered or at the very least, severely weakened.

For each of us, that protective shell was created by a desensitisation process that we were unaware was even taking place, as our infant selves were gradually corrupted to become complicit in the most unjust and brutal system of oppression that the world has ever seen. The horror of what was done to us was compounded by our being simultaneously taught to believe a complete fairy tale about the barbarism being ‘necessary’, a fantasy that we ‘love’ our victims, a blinkered delusion that we are fiercely opposed to their being harmed, and that our own behaviour, regardless of what it is, does not qualify as participation in the atrocity.

Do plants feel?

So let’s look at the idea that ‘plants have feelings’. It’s one of the most common – if not the most common – ‘argument’ in favour of the tormenting and slaughter of almost 75 billion sentient land-based individuals every year (which takes no account of the trillions of marine creatures and numerous other very large and significant groups), and it’s trotted out countless times a day on social media. I have always resisted writing about plants for several reasons.

The first reason is that I’m completely sure that the majority of those who repeat this with monotonous regularity have never read further than a few sensationalist click-bait headlines. I would truly challenge whether the majority of ‘plant activists’ have ever read the science. That science is truly fascinating and although I understand it is now largely discredited, I recall a much younger self being absolutely enthralled by the book ‘The Secret Life of Plants’.  Discredited or not, it began in me a sense of wonder and a deep appreciation of hidden marvels hitherto unknown in the lives of the myriad organisms known as plants. At various times I have kept Venus Fly Trap plants, watching in gruesome fascination as a victim triggered the embrace of the clasping trap where their life would end bathed in the digestive enzymes of the enclosing surface; I have been awed by a Mimosa Pudica , by the sensitive response to the lightest touch, observing the swift and protective folding and drooping of the leaves. There is no doubt that there is much we do not know about plants, and so much more that we can learn. It is, however, inescapable that however plants may react to stimuli, and whatever level of perception this evidences, they all differ significantly from our animal victims in that they lack a nervous system and a brain.

Some of the current science of plant perception is usefully summed up in this article by the BBC entitled ‘Plants can see, hear and smell – and respond’ which links to several individual studies.

“Do I think plants are smart? I think plants are complex.” However complexity, says Daniel Chamovitz of Tel Aviv University, should not be confused with intelligence.

“We plant scientists are happy to talk about similarities and differences between the plant and animal lifestyles when presenting results of plant research to the general public. You want to avoid [such metaphors], unless you are interested in a (usually futile) debate about a carrot’s ability to feel pain when you bite into it.”  Reliance on animal-based metaphors to describe plants comes with issues, says Fatima Cvrčková, a researcher at Charles University in Prague. Plants are supremely adapted for doing exactly what they need to do. They may lack a nervous system, a brain and other features we associate with complexity, but they excel in other areas.

Is this the same as ‘fish feel’ and ‘cows feel’?

The ‘plants feel’ (or ‘plants have feelings’) strategy is used by some as an attempt to draw an exact parallel between a plant’s ‘experience’ and that of our annual 75 billion victims, so that by doing so, they may dismiss the need to consider the impact of their actions and take measures to remedy them. However plants and animals are not equivalent, as science currently stands. The individuals whom we bring into the world by means of deliberate, invasive ‘breeding’ programmes for the sole purpose of slaughtering them in their youth are essentially like us in every way that matters. Like ourselves, their lives are important to them, they seek to avoid pain and remain alive. They experience life and living through their senses, through their connections to their environment and to other beings. They have needs and preferences, are capable of a wide range of emotional response, of forming deep bonds with other beings. A sentient individual is defined as having the faculty of sensation and the power to to perceive, reason and think. They have minds. They definitely do have feelings.

We all know this at a deep level and it seems bizarre in the extreme that this simple truth needs to be restated so frequently. We all know it is true of the dogs, the cats, the other species of companions with whom we share our lives and our homes. We recognise and relate to their behaviour, their reactions, their vocalisations and their body language. Even without a trace of anthropomorphism, we can interpret their body language and accept that we might have similar reactions were we in their situation.

Despite this, we have learned to block out the blindingly obvious and scientifically proven fact that these same reactions and qualities extend also to the 75 billion, and in fact to the trillions of marine individuals whose lives we take each year without conscience or concern.

Let’s imagine for a moment that harming plants and harming animals is exactly the same…

For the sake of avoiding argument however, even were science to continue to develop in the area of plant perception and even if it were to discover that peeling a carrot is the equivalent of using a hide puller to agonisingly flay a terrified individual as they hang upside down by one chained leg, struggling desperately, their breath bubbling through the warm, bright blood that their panicking heart is pumping frantically through their gashed carotid arteries and jugular veins; even if science were to discover that mowing the grass is equivalent to genocide and that weeding the patio is an act of brutality, the ‘plants’ justification would still not hold up.

The very use of this ‘plants feel’ ‘argument’ indicates that it is absolutely certain that the writer is probably unaware of, but has definitely never stopped to consider, the feeding requirements of the 75 billion innocent land-based creatures who are being force bred, raised, ‘fattened’, used and trucked to slaughterhouses annually so that we may consume their flesh, eggs and breast milk.  There are 75 billion of them and approximately 7.7 billion of us. They are plant eaters.

Even using the most economical feeding methods, the massive volume of plant material that each of the 75 billion individuals needs to consume during their existence from conception to slaughter, in addition to the feeding requirements of those who are incarcerated year on year for us to parasitise their breast milk or their eggs and for our laboratory experimentation, is beyond the ability of most of us to even imagine. The scale of this plant consumption to feed our victims is breathtaking, and growing these plants comes inevitably with an environmental impact of devastating proportions.

Still examining the logistics of feeding our victims, the other thing tied into the vast tonnage of plant material consumed by the 75 billion, is something called a ‘feed conversion ratio‘. Putting this simply, what any feed conversion ratio illustrates is that for any given quantity of foodstuff consumed by an animal (of any species), a vastly reduced quantity of whatever substance we are interested in – be that breast milk, eggs or flesh – will be produced. The science behind this is obviously highly relevant for those seeking to maximise the profit they make from consumers for exploiting the lives and bodies of the defenceless on their behalf; contrary to all the rhetoric we read and hear from those who farm lives, it is not a labour of love as they would have us believe. It’s a business and any business is founded on the principle of maximising profit by minimising costs. As always, follow the money.

Feed conversion at its heart is a very basic principle of which we all have direct experience; all we need to consider is the several bags of shopping that many of us will carry into our kitchens week in, week out, Most of us try to keep our weight stable but even doing that requires the consumption of a substantial weight of food. It follows logically that to increase our weight, we would need to consume considerably more weight in food (several times more) than the weight we would gain. Conversion ratios are simply the scientific expression of exactly how much food an individual would need to consume to increase their weight by a given amount/ produce a given quantity of breast milk / produce an egg 300 days a year. Basically, animals of any species, including human animals, are very inefficient converters of food into flesh / eggs / breast milk.

‘We have to eat’

‘We have to eat’. Now all this stuff about plants and ratios would be simply an exercise of academic interest if the consumption of animal-derived substances were actually essential for human well being. But this is where it all starts to unravel and become unstuck. Not only is it unnecessary for us to use the lives and bodies of our sentient fellow earthlings for consumption, there’s an increasing weight of evidence pointing to the harmful effects of these and their undisputed role in causing the major killer conditions of our time: heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many others. Every major health organisation on the planet now recognises that we can thrive without consuming animal substances. And yet the myths persist, and those with vested interests (follow that money again) continue to perpetuate these and stoke the smouldering embers of misinformation and confusion.

The point is, however, that feeding vast quantities of plants to our 75 billion victims to get back a small proportion of that nutrition converted into  body parts, eggs and hormonal secretions, is a hugely inefficient process, enacted without necessity and quite transparently out of pure self indulgence. While they are awaiting their untimely and horrific deaths, our victims consume far more nutrients than they are capable of generating by way of substances for us to consume.

7.7 billion humans then go on to consume these body parts, eggs and breast milk that we take from our victims, and our own bodies, in the same highly inefficient feed conversion process, further reduce the nutritional payload of what began as a massive quantity of plants.

Put simply, by running these original plants through firstly the digestive systems of our victims, then running their bodies and secretions through our own digestive systems, we effect two sets of inefficient feed conversions and in the process, need to grow sufficient plant material to feed over 80 billion animals including ourselves.

In addition to this, it’s not even as if animal substances are a substitution for plants in a human diet. Dead flesh, eggs and the cross-species breastfeeding behaviour that we have been brainwashed into calling ‘dairy‘ and regarding as normal, do not provide for the nutritional needs of our degenerate species. We all additionally require to consume as large a volume of plant materials as we can, as it’s from this that we draw the vast majority of minerals and nutrients as well as the fibre that is essential for healthy digestion.

Since science has proved that we can survive and thrive on plants, by consuming these directly, only one process of feed conversion needs take place instead of two. By consuming plants directly, we need feed only 7.7 billion instead of 83 billion.  If plants were indeed to be shown to suffer in any way from being eaten, it’s simply logical that those who are concerned for this ‘suffering’ would wish to minimise it by using as few of them as possible.

So let’s go back to where this began. ‘Plants feel, fish feel, cows feel – but we have to eat’

  • ‘Plants feel’; well do they? Research indicates that plants may have some level of perception that science has yet to fully reveal.  To say this represents ‘feeling’ is inaccurate. Scientists tell us that animal based metaphors may be used as an aid to describing plant responses to stimuli to the general public, but as plants lack the same nervous system, brain and receptors as an animal, these metaphors may be unhelpful and open to misinterpretation.
  • ‘Fish feel, cows feel’; yes, we know that sentient individuals definitely feel and not only that, but those animals who are not human are scientifically proven to experience these feelings to a similar or even greater extent than human animals.
  • ‘We have to eat’; yes, indeed we do. We can eat plants directly without the need to involve any other being to inefficiently convert these plants into parts and substances which we then need to supplement with plants. By cutting out the ‘middle victim’, we minimise plant consumption.

So what else is this comment saying?

I could write another essay on that topic alone (possibly will at some point), but suffice it to say that we all have had or used this dismissive mechanism to some extent. For instance consider the prisons that we euphemistically call ‘zoos’ and ‘wildlife parks’, ‘sea life centres’ etc. When challenged on these, we tend to trot out a sentence that includes words about ‘endangered species’ and ‘breeding programmes’ and ‘education’. I know we do this because I was not always vegan and I used to say things like that; they soothed my conscience about paying money to witness the degradation, subjugation and humiliation of wild and beautiful individuals, imprisoned in unnatural environments for us to gawp at. I repeated the buzz words as often as I deemed appropriate.

For each of the uses of individuals who do not share our species, it seems to me that in our early years we all learn certain stock phrases. We use these, often to ourselves, to defend our participation in practices that make us uncomfortable. We like it when we consider that these phrases sound ethical, moral and thoughtful to our ears. But – again speaking from experience and from many years of people-watching – we frequently learn the words by rote, repeating them without ever really thinking about them. That we continue to use them largely unchallenged tells us that in our culture, the majority participate in the same defence mechanism and thus reinforce our flawed ‘justifications’.

And what about our personal attitude? When we use these phrases as an attempt to shut down a conversation on a topic that is making us uncomfortable, we are telling the listener that we are not listening, not prepared to consider the validity of the facts that are being presented and that we are dismissing any notion of personal responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

It’s absolutely true that no one can force us to be responsible. However it’s somewhat tragic that every single one of us would refuse to embrace this as a description of ourselves, preferring to think of ourselves as decent and honourable; people who take a stand against injustice and defend the helpless and innocent. It makes us feel good when we consider that these values apply to us. However, when we’re not vegan, they don’t. It’s really that simple; being vegan is simply becoming the people we actually think we are already.

Be vegan.

This entry was posted in Addressing resistance to change, Health and plant based eating, Sentience and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Plants feel, fish feel, cows feel – but we have to eat

  1. Laura says:

    “We must do it to survive,” they have to convince themselves. Otherwise many couldn’t sleep at night. So down go the big macs and KFC, great “survival” (diabetes) chow. Thanks for this well done article; yes, let’s get our nutrients directly, cleanly and in the healthiest way both physically and psychologically.


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