Plants Feel Pain Too? What’s a Vegan To Do?
Q & A With Dr. Will Tuttle
Question: I had a chance to attend one of your recent lectures and left inspired to spread awareness about veganism, and began posting messages on my FaceBook page. A lengthy exchange of views followed in which an acquaintance of mine argued that the same ideas of slavery, rape, exploiting of animals apply to plants as well, and by eating plants, I am committing the same crimes against them, and accused me of discriminating different forms of life. Other than saying that I cannot reason with those who use this argument to justify their choice of eating meat, I could not think of any better way to counter it. I want to know what you would have said to this person. — Deepika
Thanks Deepika for your questions and your efforts to raise awareness with others. If you can avoid actually arguing with pre-vegans, that’s always preferable, though it does take quite a bit of practice. It seems to be a good idea to initially agree or partially agree with whatever objection the person is making. A statement beginning with, “Yes, I understand. I wondered about that for a long time myself,” helps to create a common ground with the person you’re communicating with. You could even reinforce their idea by saying something like, “I read The Secret Life of Plants and have studied the recent literature about plant sentience so I could understand it better, and I understand the reasons people may be concerned about the possible suffering of plants.”
In your response, I’d suggest using primarily “I” statements, just talking about your own adventure of discovery. Here’s an example:
Yes, I understand your question. Like most people, I was raised eating meat, dairy, and eggs, and I believed the official stories, like the protein story, the calcium story, the human superiority story, and the plants feel pain too story. As I did more research, though, and started questioning the stories that had been injected into my consciousness from infancy, I began to realize that animal agriculture is not only hideously abusive to pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, fishes, and other animals, but that it is also exceedingly inefficient.
Right now, for example, we are destroying about an acre per second of Amazonian rainforest in order to grow soybeans to feed imprisoned animals for meat, dairy products, and eggs that are consumed right here in this country. Cutting down an acre of rainforest is not just killing trees; it is also destroying webs of life that took millions of years to evolve, resulting in loss of habitat for both animals and plants, and driving the largest mass extinction of species in 65 million years. The oceans are similarly being overfished for fish for both human and livestock consumption, similarly driving extinction, climate destabilization, and environmental destruction.
With more research, I began moving toward a vegan lifestyle, and I learned that forests throughout the entire world have been, and continue to be, destroyed in order to grow corn, soy, alfalfa, and other feedstock for enslaved animals. I discovered that people who research the impact of animal agriculture on forests estimate that a person who switches from a standard western diet to a vegan diet saves at least 100 trees every year! It takes a small fraction of land, water, and petroleum to feed someone eating a plant-based diet, compared with someone eating a typical meat- and dairy-based diet. So it became crystal clear to me that anyone who professes to love plants and trees is unequivocally called to practice vegan living.
With further research, I learned, for example in The World Peace Diet, that everyone in our culture is injected with a small repertoire of rationalizations to use whenever the question of meat and dairy eating comes up. This is one of the main ones of course. I realized that it’s not an authentic objection, but merely a cultural device to prevent people from looking more deeply at the effects of their behavior.
With further reflection, I began to realize how flawed this rationalization actually is. For one thing, most of the plant-based foods we eat do not require harming the plants. Eating apples and other fruits, for example, actually benefit apple trees, creating orchards and of course we spread the seeds by eating the fruits of the tree. The same is true of most vegetables as well, which are actually fruits, such as tomatoes, squashes, eggplants, peppers, beans, corn, and so forth.
But what really clicked for me as I thought about it more deeply, is how shameful and absurd this rationalization is. Can you imagine ever using such a rationalization for violence against a human being? That it’s OK to stab another human being because tomatoes don’t want to be stabbed either? Wow! Or if it was used to rationalize stabbing a dog? Yet we use it to rationalize stabbing equally vulnerable sensitive beings with fully developed nervous systems who are the subjects of their lives, as we are. For example, if someone were to be charged with animal cruelty for stabbing his neighbor’s dog, and was testifying in court as to why he did this, if he were to say that to him, stabbing a dog and stabbing a tomato are really the same, I think it’s likely such a person would not just be sent to jail, but probably sent to an institution for the criminally insane.
As I have continued on this journey of vegan living, I’ve learned a lot about how our culture programs all of us to discount the suffering we cause others. I’ve come to realize that nonhuman animals are clearly recognized by researchers today to be profoundly capable of suffering, both physically and psychologically, and that they have complex intelligence and emotions that are devastatingly abused by the confinement, mutilation, and cruelty inherent in animal agriculture.
We animals, being mobile, are, unlike plants, equipped with bodies with pain receptors for our survival, but even if plants are in some way able to feel distress, as vegans, we harm a tiny fraction of the plants that eating the flesh and secretions of animals requires. Eighty to ninety percent of all the corn, soy, alfalfa, wheat, oats, and other grains we grow are fed to animals. So, even though we are growing enough food to feed 12-15 billion people every year, and we only have 7.2 billion people on the planet, at least one billion of our brothers and sisters are chronically hungry and starving because we feed most of our grains and legumes to imprisoned animals to feed those living in countries with higher-powered economies diets rich animal-based foods. Animal agriculture, which is exceedingly wasteful, traumatizes animals, wildlife, ecosystems, hungry people, and slaughterhouse and factory farm workers, who are forced to do work that brings out the worst in them.
As a vegan, I’ve grown to realize that I was programmed by my culture to disconnect from the violence I was inflicting on others in a variety of ways. For example, we are taught to use language, such as “harvesting” animals, which numbs and disconnects us from the realities of killing or murdering them.
Now, as a vegan, I can see that in my earlier days, I was desensitized to our culture’s relentless abuse of animals, and I can see how this numbness is a devastating affliction, because it leads, when widespread as it is today, to a society-wide lack of caring about the things that really matter in our world. I have found that vegan foods are not only delicious, but that vegans have a much lower rate of obesity, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, kidney disease, and the other afflictions that plague people today, as well.
I am deeply grateful to the people who have exemplified vegan living for me. I now realize that the only reason I ever ate meat, dairy, and eggs was because of the community I was raised in, and the examples and stories in my upbringing. It’s now clear to me that compassion and justice for animals brings greater compassion and justice for all others: for plants, for other people, for ecosystems, for future generations, and even for my own bodily organs, my mind, and my spiritual awareness. Discovering people who questioned the dominant culture’s routine violence toward animals has opened my eyes, and inspired me to do my best to live a life of lovingkindness and respect for others, and the benefits of this are incalculable. It’s like waking up from a trance that I didn’t realize I was in, till I woke up! Thanks for this opportunity to reflect and respond to your important question.
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Dr. Will Tuttle, author of the Amazon best-seller, “The World Peace Diet,” is a recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award and the Empty Cages Award. A vegan since 1980 and former Zen monk, he is the creator of several wellness and advocacy training programs.