The gauntlet has been thrown down for ethical vegans: is it moral to eat plants? This month BBC News published an article asserting that plants “can think and remember.” Natalie Angier published a piece titled “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too.”
The articles cite evidence that plants send chemical signals from one leaf to another in response to light and activate defenses against marauding animals and insects. But this evidence does not entitle plants to the same moral concern as animals: it does not prove that plants are sentient.
Ethical vegans (as opposed to vegans motivated by health or environmentalism, both of which are also sound rationales for a vegan diet) eliminate animal products from their diet (and their wardrobes) so they will not cause animals to suffer. Agribusiness has made the lives of millions of animals raised for food and fiber hellacious and their deaths gruesome in ways that would be unimaginable in the bucolic, red barn mythology of the old-fashioned American family farm. Vegans abstain from animal products because we know that animals suffer – both that they are capable of suffering, and that factory farms makes them suffer.
The new studies of plants have not proven that they are capable of suffering. According to Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, “sentience is the key point. For the animals it’s obvious and well-documented. With plants it isn’t.” Without sentience, there can be no suffering. Angier has challenged ethical vegans prematurely: since we don’t have evidence that plants suffer, we don’t have a reason not to eat or wear plant products.
But this argument puts ethical vegans in an ironic position. Normally it is vegans defending the position that animals are sentient, that they feel pain and fear, and a significant piece of evidence for that argument is their reactions to threats and to sustenance. With regard to plants, vegans must argue that plants’ reactions to threats and sustenance do not prove that they are sentient.
So let’s grant Angier’s argument for a moment and assume that plants are sentient. Humans cannot survive without eating them, which is a very practical but amoral argument. There is also a moral argument consistent with the values of ethical vegans, as Baur points out: “by eating plants we’ll be killing fewer than if we eat animals, who have eaten lots and lots of plants.” Even if evidence emerges that plants are sentient, therefore, ethical vegans will still hold the moral high ground.