Eating for Life: Why the World Needs More Food Innovation
by Dr. Joel Gladd
We live in an era when even the most conscientious consumer has to make difficult decisions about what’s ok for them to eat. With recent advances in the biological sciences, it seems that even the purest vegan might carry some guilt.
When I was around ten years old, I read through Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night and stumbled on Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Sound Machine”. The plot follows Klausner, a man obsessed with sound, who invents a sound machine that can pick up the screams of plants. As a budding rationalist I instinctively pushed back against the idea that plants feel pain; yet when Klausner snipped a flower and his machine recorded a distinct shriek arising from the plant, I was troubled.
I would later discover in graduate school that Dahl’s story was most likely a playful innovation within a long tradition of imagining objects as subjects that hearkened back to the 18th-century “cult of sensibility”. In fact imagining that flowers have pain is much less ambitious than these earlier precedents--some depicting British coins as having secret inner lives that only a novelist could capture.
The difference between a shrieking plant and an adventurous coin, however, is that there’s an emerging consensus within the scientific community that Roald Dahl’s Klausner wasn’t too far from the mark, that plants might indeed experience pain that we’re just now figuring out how to record.
The challenge that seems to be emerging from recent research is that scientists are discovering not only a kind of pain in plants, but also that some species have their own form of language, as well as the capacity to plan for the future. As Jeffrey T. Nealon explains in Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life, there might be enough scientific evidence to place plants on par with animals as “an ethically compelling figure for life” (12).
You can imagine the moral fog that would result if conscientious consumers were forced to acknowledge that (some) plants had lives on par with animals. As Nealon suggests, if plants become recognized as an ethically compelling figure for life … what’s left for us to choose if we decide no longer to kill plants for humans to survive? … What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent, if the salad bar can no longer function as an ethical refuge from the rest of the menu at the steakhouse? (27)
Following Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, many contemporary vegans and vegetarians tend to place their ethical bets on the idea of felt pain and the capacity for suffering. Yet Nealon convincingly shows that the more fundamental debate is about the concept of life itself.
A quote by Martin Hagglünd in Plant Theory is typical of what constitutes “life” for many modern consumers: “everything in time is surviving, but not everything is alive … [and&91; only a living being cares about maintaining itself across an interval of time” (qtd. on p.57). This assumption about life is what undergirds the fascinating 2014 Washington Post article by Tamar Stelling, “Do lobsters and other invertebrates feel pain?” In that article Stelling tried to determine the boundary between animals that suffer and animals that merely exhibit a pain “reflex”. The boundary, according to the biologist Hans Smid, is whether the pain receptors initiate something like “long-term protection” (qtd. in Stelling). Smid explains to Stelling that insects and other swarming animals don’t fit this key criterion because there’s no evolutionary purpose. A fly (and insects more generally) doesn’t live long enough for pain to matter.
In other words, “pain” is a proxy for whether an organism cares “about maintaining itself across an interval of time”; that is, whether it really lives. Furthermore, articles like “Do lobsters and other invertebrates feel pain?” show that insects are often lumped together with plants because they seem to lack (individual) self-maintenance. On the one hand, this is good news for vegetarians who might be curious about insect protein and Chapul’s cricket flour.
Yet in the final sections of Plant Theory, Nealon attempts to move beyond our current artificial divide between organisms that maintain themselves and those that do not by proposing that we think of life in terms other than individuated worlds. It might be more constructive, he suggests, to extend life to phenomena that exhibit even “swarming” tendencies, such as plants and insects.
Wait a second: re-thinking the boundary and criterion for life might suggest that we need to also extend the language of rights to some plants and insects. Put that Chapul Chaco Protein Bar back in its sleeve.
But no, according to Nealon that’s missing the point. Rather than extending the language of rights to plants and insects, he wants to focus on “how the mesh of life is altered by x or y practice …” (114). If life is no longer confined to organisms that “feel pain” but extended to a much more comprehensive vision of interconnecting plants, insects, and animals, scenarios like the off-limits salad bar become mute.
The point isn’t whether someone should decide whether or not to eat a certain category of food forever, but rather how one’s consumer practices contribute to the emergence of a new and healthy ecology. Chapul’s own website makes an argument based entirely on such a focus. Pat Crowley’s TEDx Talk pitches his protein bars in a similar fashion. Cricket flour is a deft response to ecological change, and that kind of dietary pivot is how innovation will drive the future of food choices.
On the other hand, if Nealon’s salad bar scenario genuinely convicts some, there’s always the option of eating rocks.
Nealon, Jeffrey. Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life. Stanford: SUP, 2016. Ebook.
This article was adapted from a blog post on SilentTrends.com, “Why I might start eating rocks”.