Animals and Plants - the Differences


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Animals and Plants - the Differences
Comments by Kim Bartlett - 28 Oct 2002

In her otherwise positive review of DOMINION, Natalie Angier criticizes author Matthew Scully for not examining the morality of killing plants for a vegetarian diet. There are three points she might consider regarding the moral "burden" presented by killing plants, as opposed to killing animals.

First, the sole biological purpose of pain is to ensure that a living organism gets away from or avoids potentially life-threatening dangers. Since plants are unable to escape life-threatening situations, there is no reason to imagine that they would have evolved a sense of pain. While plants may have some sort of "consciousness," they have no discernible nervous system. They do respond to stimuli and have evolved biological defenses against insect and microbial threats, but there is absolutely no rational basis for believing that plants experience pain.

Second, the most common means of reproduction by plants is the production of seeds embedded in edible fruit which is intended to attract animals who will then consume the fruit and later drop the seeds, along with natural manure fertilizer. The point of fruit, nut, and grain production by plants is for animals to eat it. (Since plants appeared on the earth 2 billion years ago and animals emerged only 600 million years ago, one could argue that animals were "created" solely to aid in plant propagation by spreading seeds.)

Third, while humans and other animals sometimes eat the entire plant or otherwise destroy the plant during feeding or harvesting, because of the high cost of meat production in terms of plant protein, people are responsible for far less plant consumption by eating plants directly rather than eating the animals who ate the plants. It takes something like 20 pounds of plant protein to provide one pound of beef. The plant protein/meat ratio is lower for the production of other kinds of animal flesh, but a pound of any kind of meat costs several times more plant protein than if one just eats the plant protein directly. This was basically the argument used by Francis Moore Lappe in DIET FOR A SMALL PLANET, when she pointed out that many more people could be fed (and fewer plants would lose their lives) if people adopted a vegetarian diet.

It is true that we cannot exist without some other organisms losing their lives. But if one truly believes that killing a carrot is as bad as killing an animal, then the moral imperative is to refrain from eating either instead of eating both. Thousands of years ago, the Jains of India categorized lifeforms by order of sentience, as a guide to eating in the spirit of "ahimsa", the guiding principle of Jainism which directs people to live their lives so as to do the least harm to others. Single-celled organisms (which had not yet been scientifically discovered) were listed as the lowest form of life. Then were plants, then fungus, then animals. Using the principle of "ahimsa" as a guide, some Jains to this day refrain from eating whole plants such as carrots, potatoes or mushrooms, but they would still acknowledge that eating animals is many times worse.

Kim Bartlett


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