The Passion Of The Parsnip: Vegetarianism And The Feelings Of PlantsS

Arguing about food is totally a thing in this waning year, and now Natalie Angier has thrown her hat into the ring by claiming that plants have feelings too.

In a sort of sideways attack on claims by Jonathan Safran Foer and others that vegetarianism is the only ethical food choice, Angier writes,

[B]efore we cede the entire moral penthouse to "committed vegetarians" and "strong ethical vegans," we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way. The more that scientists learn about the complexity of plants - their keen sensitivity to the environment, the speed with which they react to changes in the environment, and the extraordinary number of tricks that plants will rally to fight off attackers and solicit help from afar - the more impressed researchers become, and the less easily we can dismiss plants as so much fiberfill backdrop, passive sunlight collectors on which deer, antelope and vegans can conveniently graze. It's time for a green revolution, a reseeding of our stubborn animal minds.

She then launches into a series of anecdotes about the ways plants protect themselves from getting eaten, all of which are entertaining, and all of which seem slightly beside the point. Anyone who's ever eschewed meat has encountered more than one person who makes jokes about cruelty to carrots, usually with the goal of making vegetarians feel like idiots. They do this because vegetarianism often feels like a judgment, implicit or explicit, against the way omnivores live their lives. But the fact that brussels sprouts combat hungry caterpillars by releasing compounds that summon caterpillar-eating wasps doesn't invalidate vegetarianism anymore than the sheer number of sick people in the world invalidates medical care. We can never end all suffering, and the assumption that this is the goal of all vegetarians misunderstands what vegetarianism is about — a misunderstanding unfortunately fostered by some vegetarians.

Angier's real point isn't actually that vegetarianism is dumb, or that we should all subsist on fruit and dead bugs. Rather, her argument is that all eating is a compromise. Angier writes that she no longer eats "mammalian meat," but still consumes fish and poultry. She continues,

My dietary decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent, and when friends ask why I'm willing to try the duck but not the lamb, I don't have a good answer. Food choices are often like that: difficult to articulate yet strongly held.

The truth is, the best thing human beings could do for (almost) every other species on Earth would be to cease to exist. Anytime we choose to keep ourselves alive at the expense of other living things — which we do all the time, consciously or not — we sacrifice a certain amount of our moral purity. This is something people on both sides of the debate about food politics have to accept — that vegetarians will never be entirely morally perfect, and that this lack of perfection doesn't invalidate what they're trying to do.

Food politics are ancient, as a look at any religion's dietary laws will attest. And as Angier says, people often believe in their food choices almost as deeply as they believe in their gods, making many a dinner table a kind of culinary Middle East. Arguing about food can be just as thankless as trying to talk someone into or out of belief in God, and at this point we might do well to accept an interfaith model of eating. Yes, food is about morality, and yes, we can judge others' dietary morals if we wish. But food, like religion, can also be about comfort, memory, tradition, transcendence, and joy, and these are things people can share even if they're not eating the same dish. It might be time to focus on them.

Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like To Live, Too [NYT]