If plants are so intelligent, should we stop eating them? | Emma Beddington

Recent research suggests plants may be able to learn and communicate. This really put me off my baked potato

If you were starting to polish your Veganuary halo, sorry, I have upsetting news, gleaned from a Radio 4 programme called Is Eating Plants Wrong?. Spoiler alert: maybe.

Plants, it explained, “can sense the world around them, learn, remember and engage in complex communication with the species around them”. Research suggests that pea seedlings can learn to associate a sound with the light they need and choose to grow in a particular direction as a result. They can also eavesdrop on each other and protect themselves based on what they “hear”. Sagebrush plants communicate to each other the risk of being chomped by insects and trees share nutrients through what Prof Suzanne Simard pleasingly calls the “wood wide web”; they do so more with trees they are related to than with “strangers”.

Do plants show intelligence? “Definitely, yes – I don’t see any problem with this,” replied one interviewee on the programme, putting me off my baked potato and raising fears about what the houseplants my son unwisely left in my care are saying about me behind my back.

It is a head-spinning indication of how much we still have to learn about the world. The really knotty question, though, is what is left for a would-be ethical eater’s lunch? Ethical fruitarianism – eating only the parts of plants that detach harmlessly, causing no damage – might meet the standards of the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (which has ruled that plants have the right to be protected from undue harm).

But what could we eat in the UK at this time of year under that regime: nuts? Wouldn’t we be depriving squirrels? Lab-created meat is still at the experimental stage and costs more than a Salt Bae gold-sprinkled steak, but is roadkill allowed? I would say breatharianism – only “eating” air – is due a revival, but it is mad, dangerous and probably a cult, so no. Alternatively, we could fly in the face of decades of medical advice and stick to stuff with no discernible relationship to anything living: the Irn-Bru diet?

My last option: learn to photosynthesise. If they are so clever, perhaps plants can teach us.

• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist


Emma Beddington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sustainable gin and family-sized crisps! My week eating a climatarian diet
Many of us are keen to eat more sustainably – but is a vegan croissant better or worse than locally sourced sausages? And can climate-conscious eating ever be enjoyable? One writer finds out

Emma Beddington

10, Nov, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
How do I know we have reached peak milk? Almond is being ditched for dairy | Arwa Mahdawi
The milk market is fiercely competitive. Soy, coconut, hemp and potato varieties vie for a piece of the action – and you can’t count out whole milk either, writes Arwa Mahdawi

Arwa Mahdawi

03, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Isolation nation: loneliness afflicts people and pets – and now even plants are feeling it
‘Freedom day’ is bad news for houseplants, which relish the sounds and vibrations of human company

19, Jul, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Can’t face another sad salad? Here’s how to ditch the lettuce and forage for something more exciting
Lime leaves are perfect with vinaigrette; sheep’s sorrel seeds taste of lemon; and fox pee … well, steer clear of fox pee. Our expert explains what to pick, what to avoid, and how to make the most of your haul

Alys Fowler

13, Jun, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
I’ve been trying milk substitutes in my tea – it’s a stomach-churning experience | Emma Beddington
Pea milk, oat milk, soya milk … they all claim to be the ethical holy grail for tea-drinkers. But did any of them work for Guardian columnist Emma Beddington?

Emma Beddington

15, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
It smells like sex out there – and we seem determined to ignore it | Nell Frizzell
Whether you are waiting at the bus stop or outside Lidl, the spring scent hangs heavy in the air, says Nell Frizzell, author of The Panic Years

Nell Frizzell

01, May, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Such a sensitive flower: do plants really have personalities?
Plants are compulsive communicators, but now one expert thinks they may also have different character traits – with some more nervy than others

23, Nov, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
My towering agave plant is in full bloom – but it’s a bittersweet bonanza | Adrian Chiles
The century plant outside my flat grew a monstrous stalk this summer. I have since learned this means its days are numbered – which has painted it in a whole new light, writes Adrian Chiles

Adrian Chiles

15, Sep, 2021 @3:44 PM

Article image
I’m sure robots are very nice, but I don’t want them picking my fruit | Nell Frizzell
The more we automate our farms, the less we understand about our food. Let’s not get too hands-off

Nell Frizzell

04, Jul, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘Accidental meat’: should carnivores embrace eating roadkill?
My parents have been eating pheasants killed on the roads for years and encouraging me to try them. Is this the most ethical approach to meat-eating?

Daniel Lavelle

27, May, 2021 @9:00 AM