The case for the ethical treatment of plants

Plants
Plants

Do houseplants dream of electric sheep? Plants communicate with each other and with the world around them, and they deserve our respect, says Ramon Gonzalez.

The 1973 book “The Secret Life of Plants” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird advanced the notion that plants are sentient and can experience emotions and pain. The book has been widely discounted as pseudoscience since its publishing, but recent studies indicate that plants are more aware than we understand.

I came across the book in high school after encountering my first vegan who explained that she did not eat anything that could feel pain. Being a natural born contrarian, I set out to prove that even though plants lacked a central nervous system, they could indeed feel pain. “The Secret Life of Plants” is a great book if you want to believe — and I do.

“Primary perception” (sometimes called “plant perception”) is a theory advanced by Cleve Backster after he attached plants to polygraph machines in the 1960s. He reported that the lie detector machine registered when the plants were harmed and even when there was only the threat of harm. Over the years his findings have been discredited. Even the popular television show “MythBusters” tackled the experiment and labeled it “Busted” after Backster’s findings could not be replicated.

7 signs plants are more sentient than we think
Modern science may prove Backster and others were onto something.

In a study published in the journal Science in 2010, researchers reported that plants emit “green leaf volatiles” (GLVs) in response to herbivore damage. This “botanical SOS” carried by the modified compounds attracts predatory bugs to deal with the threat by eating them.

Scientists from Ben-Gurion University in Israel discovered that the common pea used its roots to signal neighboring plants when it experienced drought-like conditions. This caused surrounding plants to react as if they too were experiencing drought and prepare for the drought.

Plants are talking to insects and other plants; we just cannot hear them with the naked ear. The smell of a freshly cut lawn, the aroma rosemary emits when you crush the leaves between your fingers: that’s the scent of plants screaming in agony.

Using a laser-power microphone, scientists at the Institute for Applied Physics at the University of Bonn have also documented that plants “cry out” when they are subjected to pain. When a leaf or stem of a plant is cut, it releases the gas ethylene over its entire surface. Using specially calibrated lasers, scientists were able to make the ethylene molecules vibrate. Microphones could record the result of the vibrating molecules. “The more a plant is subjected to stress, the louder the signal we got on our microphone,” Frank Kühnemann, of the Institute for Applied Physics in Bonn, said of their findings. When plants are happy and healthy, they make a gurgling sound.

You do not need a fancy research lab to observe plants communicating with each other. Take an apple and seal it in a plastic bag with a bromeliad, a common houseplant, for 10 days. As the apple ages it releases ethylene gas that, in turn, induces the bromeliad to send out a shoot and flower. The bromeliad, having received a distress message from the apple, will bloom in the hopes of attracting a pollinator that will help it set seeds in order to ensure the survival of its genetic material. Source MNN by Ramon Gonzalez

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