The Secret Life of Plants
Hare Krishna. Recently on one of my wife Leslie’s homeschooling e-mail groups, one of the other mothers described two recent events in their family life. They had a ‘favorite’ chicken that died, and the young daughter was pretty upset. A few weeks earlier, the father shot and killed a wild turkey that wandered through their yard. Leslie said to her, “What puzzles me is how you would explain that it is OK to shoot a wild turkey and then nurse and feel bad for a chicken.”
The woman’s response was not unusual.
I marvel at some vegetarians who seem to be all about the compassionate eating. They must never have read the book “The Secret Life of Plants.” It talks about how plants respond to how people talk to them, and how they flourish or die depending on how they are treated.
To quote from Wikipedia: “Essentially, the subject of the book is the idea that plants may be sentient, despite their lack of a nervous system. This sentience is observed primarily through changes in the plant’s conductivity, as through a polygraph, as pioneered by Cleve Backster. The book also contains a summary of Goethe’s theory of plant metamorphosis.”
It’s an eloquent version of the frequent reaction by meat-eaters, “Well, you kill plants.”
Leslie passed the keyboard over to me for a response. Here’s what I wrote:
I have read the Secret Life of Plants, appreciating it very much, and I’m also very sensitive to plant feelings. As Leslie was mentioning, I work extensively with herbs and I do not us lawn mowers because of unnecessary distress they inflict upon the plants (by tearing the grass whereas a scythe makes a clean cut) and also to little critters who may be in the way. There are actually several components to my little presentation; I’ll try to address each of them somewhat briefly.
First is that the physical sensations felt by plants are very minor compared to animals. Human beings and other animals have relatively well developed nervous systems, through which we feel painful and pleasurable sensations. Plants lack this physiology although they still experience pain and pleasure to a minor degree. Dental procedures give a good example of the difference. If I were to get a root canal without any Novocain the pain would be very severe, whereas the same procedure with Novocain would produce a very minor sensation. If we’re talking about fear rather than pain, we would say that the plant feels some fear but a to a very minor degree compared to an animal. We admit that the plants feel some fear and pain, but their physical senses are dull and they feel very little; just as they also move, but very little. There is a Sanskrit aphorism, jivo jivasya jivanam, “One living entity is food for another;” we admit this fact of life. We’re forced to eat, so we eat in such a way as to cause minimal harm and avoid causing any unnecessary suffering.
Next is that the animals that people eat are themselves consumers of plants; and when people eat these animals, the total demand for plant resources is much higher than if one eats plants directly. One way this can be evaluated is according to the amount of agricultural land required to feed a person. Although the kind of animal eaten is significant (producing beef requires much more resources than producing chicken, for example) a typical American meat-eater requires ten times the agricultural land compared to a vegetarian. If compared to a vegan, the meat eater requires twenty times the farmland. What if we could convert 90% of our farmland to uses other than grazing and growing feed? Of course, there are other resources affected besides land; for instance, it takes about 1,000 times as much water to produce some number of calories of beef compared to most vegetables. In terms of gallons, an average American meat-eating adult requires roughly 4,000 gallons of water to produce his food every day, but only 1,200 gallons are needed to grow a vegetarian’s food. Doing the math, a vegetarian saves more than 1 million gallons of water each year compared to an average American meat-eater. It’s also noteworthy that most of the water used to produce food in the USA comes from an aquifer (the Ogallala) that does not replenish and is predicted to dry up in about 25 years. I’m still looking for reliable facts related to petroleum usage, which is also very significant. One source I found stated that beef production requires 1,200 times the petroleum to produce beef compared to legumes, and another analyzed it saying that if even 10% of the meat-eaters in the USA became vegetarians, we would not need to import oil. Few people understand the magnitude of our dietary impacts, but a major U.N. report published a few years ago revealed that agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than transportation.
The political implications are so enormous that I doubt that there would be a war in Iraq if we were a predominantly vegetarian country. In addition to the ecological considerations, there is a science of how different foods affect the psyche. How can a country that unnecessarily slaughters 10 billion animals a year possibly be peaceful?
Personally, I cannot neglect the fact that plants can in fact feel pain, fear, and suffering; and I am responsible for it by my eating. In Bhagavad-gita 3.13, Krishna, described therein as “the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” states (translated from Sanskrit), “The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” He comes back to the subject in verse 9.13, saying, “If one offers Me with love and devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or some water, I will accept it.” Our understanding, based on instruction received through disciplic succession, is that God does not require any food, but He eats vegetarian foods offered with love by His devotees. His devotees eat His remnants, which are purified of all sinful reactions. The plants that make up the foods are also purified of their burden of sin, and are promoted to human life in their next birth. The whole scenario is of course more complex than can be expressed in an e-mail, but the main point is that the little sin of killing or harming a plant for food is addressed by preparing and offering the food to God, and accepting His remnants, which purifies the plant as well as the person eating. We actually distribute these spiritualized remnants to the general public with the understanding that they become purified of sinful reactions and make spiritual advancement just by eating the food, which we call “prasadam,” meaning “mercy.”
Well, that’s about it. I hope that I haven’t made any offense in explaining this. I don’t know if Leslie has more to say about anything. Oh, one more thing I’d like to mention. Although it’s practically my life’s mission to promote the closure of slaughterhouses, eating meat from an animal that was killed by hunting in the wild is much more acceptable. The environmental considerations are practically nullified, for example, and the animal at least had a relatively free life, albeit prematurely terminated.
Hare Krishna. I hope the devotees find this acceptable. At the moment I’m remembering that several years ago I heard a devotee say that the plants that are offered to Krishna are promoted to human birth in the next life, but I haven’t actually seen or heard such a statement from Srila Prabhupada, and now I’m wondering if that is correct or if I should not have said it. It’s a nice sentiment, but I’d like to know if it’s true. If anyone knows more about this, I’d appreciate hearing about it. Of course, any other comments are also quite welcome. Hare Krishna.