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Sunday, September 20, 2020

The ethical treatment of plants

They give us everything, from oxygen to food to fuel. The least we owe them is respect and gratitude.

Written by Ranjit Lal | August 23, 2020 6:30:58 am
Ranjit Lal, Down in Jungleland, plant rights, sunday eye, eye 2020, indianexpress,Plants also run the world’s best juice factory, producing, through their fruit, juices of bewildering variety, natural sweetness and flavour.

There’s an increasing number of people who are hectoring the world about our abominable treatment of animals, especially those bred and “farmed” for food and they try very hard to make these people give up steaks and smoked ham and eat leaves instead. Many of their criticisms are valid and we ought to be more humane in our dealings with them (though doing so while killing something might seem paradoxical). Ah, yes, and now here comes the “but”!

Let’s look at the way we treat plants. First, let’s remind ourselves of what green plants do for us. They shower oxygen and clear up carbon-dioxide meant to suffocate us. They pump up and purify water from the earth’s depths — and make rain, too. Most importantly, they provide every calorie of energy — in different forms — that every living (and non-living) thing uses. They convert sunlight into sugars and starch, and, dare I say, steaks and smoked ham and petrol! Even when long dead and buried deep, they provide the fuel required to run our factories, cars and planes — though, granted, that bit of recycling is now coming back to bite us — as we overdose on it.

Plants also run the world’s best juice factory, producing, through their fruit, juices of bewildering variety, natural sweetness and flavour. While biting into a slice of watermelon, it suddenly struck me: how the heck did this plant suck up so many litres of water, flavour it so deliciously, package it and make me want to eat far more than I ought to? What is the mango’s secret recipe for transporting us to nirvana? Of course, the plants’ motive is simple: to tempt me — or any other creature — into eating their fruit and spreading their seeds, so that their progeny can continue the good work.

One of the main reasons put forward by people as to why it’s okay to rip out plants from their roots and plunge them into boiling water or sizzling oil is that, unlike animals, they are not sentient. Perhaps, not in the way we understand, but maybe they are sentient in their own way. They are sensitive to light; vines and creepers behave like pythons as time-lapse photography has shown. It would be eye-popping to see, through time lapse, what a strangler fig does to its host over the years! When under attack, plants produce (at great cost) poisons and stomach irritants — like tannins — to protect themselves (the reason why tea is bitter and is used by the poor to suppress appetite). They even warn their neighbours that an elephant or human with a sickle is coming around. Deep underground, their roots spread far and wide, and, with the help of fungi, barter with other plants for nutrients they may lack. The fungus gets paid too — in the form of sugars.

I think our attitude would change if we could all see exactly what goes on in a plant as it lives, grows and matures — as if it were transparent. The miracle machinery of the leaves working with chlorophyll, the marvellous channels up and down the stem and trunk through which water and food is transported, the delicate manner a flower unfolds and how a fruit ripens and sweetens just until it is perfect. How its systems shut down as winter — or the blazing hot summer — approaches and then rev up again when the season changes. How it might go to war with a neighbouring plant claiming territory and resources, often when it is an intruder (we call these weeds).

If we could think about what plants might feel if they were sentient in any way (not necessarily like us), imagine what a wheat field would feel when it first hears the rattle and clank of an approaching combine harvester! Or, the trees in a forest, when they hear the maniacal screech of a chainsaw, or when axes bite deep into them, blow by blow, dismembering and disemboweling them (there goes a hundred years of quiet toil, building a green cathedral!). It’s a sound that makes any normal human being wince. As with some animals, we’re now fiddling with their genes too: every banana must be identical to the next one. We feed them artificially — with what would be the equivalent of performance boosters — to make them grow and put on muscle double quick — and bankrupt the soil they stand on. How nice if an apple can taste like an orange and an orange like a banana!

Even in our everyday life, we are so disrespectful of plants — casually ripping them up, slashing them, and yanking their heads off so they can grace a vase in our living rooms or stringing them into garlands to sling around the greasy neck of some political leader.

When we were hunter-gatherers, it became customary for the hunter to pay his (or her) respects to the animal hunted and killed — perhaps, with a brief prayer asking for forgiveness and offering gratitude (I don’t think this practice takes place in slaughterhouses — it really ought to). And, like it or not, until we can eat rocks or plastic (which, again, originate with plants) we will have to eat other living things. And, though plants lead very different lives compared to us and other animals, they are living things. So it’s only right that we extend a little more respect to them. Remember, we owe them big.

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