The Vegan Pagan: Interstice the Second

As before, I've been following the Facebook conversations around my vegan blog entries, and this time I've noticed further discussion around the idea of plant sentience. Some of you have argued that plants are no different from animals and so the eating of plants and animals should be considered on equal footing.

How very animistic of you. I would expect no less from my Pagan community.

It's an interesting question and one deserving of its own space, so I've decided to offer a vegan perspective here in advance of my next major blog entry in the series.

For the sake of argument, let's presume that plants possess independent minds and thoughts of sufficient complexity that they can deliberately communicate with the world. From this premise, a plant-based diet would still represent the most ethical choice and the path of least destruction, because every single animal life requires the consumption of many plant lives. There are a number of peer-reviewed studies explaining feed to meat conversion ratios, but here's a handy chart from NPR that shows the amount of grain, forage and grazing land required to produce a quarter-pound hamburger:

Resources required to make a quarter pound hamburger.

Full NPR Broadcast and Image Credit

Therefore, if we believe plants are sentient, and our goal is to be ethical people who do the least harm to the fewest sentient beings, then we have no choice but to adopt a plant-based diet.

Now let's take this argument in a different direction. Again, let's presume plants are sentient. As sentient beings, they would want certain things from the world; sunlight, water and soil among them. Another important thing they would want is for us to eat them, go someplace else and shit out their seeds so that more plants can grow in our homemade fertilizer. That's right. If plants are sentient, we can observe by their behavior that they want for us to eat them. Now let's presume that animals are also sentient, and as sentient beings, they also want certain things from the world. By the same set of criteria, we can observe by their behavior that they do not want for us to eat them.

As proof of this assertion, I offer the following two videos. The first video depicts an Alberta grain harvest. At no time does the grain cry out or try to run away. The second video depicts a cow in a slaughter chute waiting to be prodded inside. In this case, the cow demonstrates foreknowledge of her fate, fear of death and a desire to flee. The second video isn't graphic, and I promise to provide you with a warning should I link to any graphic depictions of animal cruelty in this series. That said, I challenge you to not to look away from the things I show you in these entries. After all, if it's good enough for your plate, it ought to be good enough for your eyes, too.

  1. YouTube: Grain Harvest in Alberta
  2. YouTube: I am scared and don't want to die.

So we must draw from our hypothetical exploration of plant sentience that:

  1. If plants and animals are the same, and we want to minimize the suffering of the beings who feed us, we should never eat animals.
  2. If plants and animals are the same, plants behave as though they want us to eat them, while animals do not.

However, we know that from a scientific perspective plants are not sentient. As vegan abolitionist Gary Francione puts it:

Plants do not have nervous systems, benzodiazepine receptors, or any of the characteristics that we identify with sentience. And this all makes scientific sense. Why would plants evolve the ability to be sentient when they cannot do anything in response to an act that damages them? If you touch a flame to a plant, the plant cannot run away; it stays right where it is and burns. If you touch a flame to a dog, the dog does exactly what you would do—cries in pain and tries to get away from the flame. Sentience is a characteristic that has evolved in certain beings to enable them to survive by escaping from a noxious stimulus. Sentience would serve no purpose for a plant; plants cannot “escape.” - A Frequently Asked Question: What About Plants?

That said, from a Pagan or metaphysical perspective, it's perfectly acceptable to have equal reverence for plant and animal life. But that doesn't mean the two kinds of life are equivalent. An apple is not a cow. They do not possess a similar biology, nor do they respond to the world in similar ways. The first contains the seeds of future apple trees meant to pass through our digestive systems and grow out of our shit. The second expresses its desire to live without suffering in ways that cross the species barrier and are fully understandable to us. Therefore, isn't it reasonable to conclude that if we have reverence for all life and care about the desires of all living beings, we should meet those living beings on their own terms? Shouldn't we eat the apple and leave the cow alone?

That's it for now. Many thanks for your time! I'll be back again in a couple of weeks with my next major blog entry in this series.

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