In "If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?" (Saturday's New York Times), Michael Marder raises concerns about eating plants given some of their surprising abilities. He describes some recent research showing, for example, that when the common pea plant experiences drought conditions, it can signal those conditions to neighboring plants which can then more quickly adapt:
The research findings of the team at the Blaustein Institute form yet another building block in the growing fields of plant intelligence studies and neurobotany that, at the very least, ought to prompt us to rethink our relation to plants. Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?
Evidently, empathy might not be the most appropriate ground for an ethics of vegetal life. But the novel indications concerning the responsiveness of plants, their interactions with the environment and with one another, are sufficient to undermine all simple, axiomatic solutions to eating in good conscience. When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who — an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good. Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics.
But surely the kind of communication and adaptation evidenced by the pea plant tells us nothing about whether it is morally wrong to eat peas. After all, the signaling mechanism Marder describes is common to lots of systems that have no moral claim to our actions. I suspect, for example, that the advanced heating and cooling systems in modern buildings have the kinds of abilities that pea plants have. Yet surely we can assemble and disassemble such systems without worry that we are hurting anyone by doing so.
Now, if plants could feel pain, that might be a different story. It wouldn't mean we'd have to stop eating plants, but we might at least have to think differently about the issue. Nothing in the New York Times piece, however, warrants concerns for plants as sentient creatures in their own right.