Let them eat kale

View From the Paddock: Let them eat kale


Opinion
Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer

Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer

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The farming community might think it's threatened mostly by animal activists but now studies are being undertaken into the moral, legal and political status of the environment and the plants in it.

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It was revealed late last month that a University of Sydney research project has been established to probe the 'moral, legal and political status' of animals and the environment.

Now unless you have been living under a rock for the last 20 years, animal rights are an established and well understood progressive/vegan cause, the frightening manifestations of which played out in large part across Australia on Monday this week with the National Day of Action.

But 'plant rights' are an entirely separate matter, and most sensible-minded people would be concerned that research would even be conducted into this area.

There is no doubt that researchers are at liberty to consider the philosophical and ethical ramifications of any field of science and/or behaviour, but what is the end goal of granting rights to plants?

If we review the playbook of the animal rights activist, granting 'plant rights' will mean that they are deemed to be on the same playing field as humans and cannot be harmed in any way.

It is a pretty slippery slope from that point on, as almost all forms of farming will need to stop - broad-acre cropping, horticulture, forestry - and all of human existence looks pretty precarious from that point on.

In this regard, the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology analysed scientific data on plants, and concluded in 2009 that plants are entitled to a certain amount of dignity, but 'dignity of plants is not an absolute value'.

Further, the Swiss government has conducted ethical studies pertaining to how the dignity of plants is to be protected. I am not quite sure how this is to be achieved, short of draping a towel over every living plant. This is well into the territory of peak navel gazing surely!

To state the bleeding obvious, plants are undoubtedly complex, and there are still enormous aspects of their lives that scientists are yet to unravel.

By way of example, to protect themselves, plants employ a volley of molecular responses. These chemical communications can be used to poison an enemy, alert surrounding plants to potential dangers or attract helpful insects to perform needed services.

There is also evidence that plants can hear themselves being eaten. Researchers have found that plants understand and respond to chewing sounds made by caterpillars that are dining on them. As soon as the plants hear the noises, they respond with several defence mechanisms.

One scientist injected fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes and saw that within a few days the carbon had been sent from tree to tree until every tree in the 30-square metre area was connected.

The scientist learned that the mature trees 'communicated' to the network to share nutrients through their root systems to feed nearby seedlings until they were tall enough to take in light for themselves.

Plants are exceptionally well adapted for doing exactly what they need to do. But is there really any need to consider whether plants are deserving of rights?

And if we give rights to plants, where do we draw the line after that?

Are we to become like the Jain (a deeply religious sect in India), whose adherents believe that no harm must come to any living organism, such that they walk with a broom to sweep clear the ground before they walk on it. This is done to avoid squashing insects and other small organisms, as this is seen as 'treading on souls'.

Whatever 'intelligence' plants have, it's nothing like ours; and most people, don't find eating fruits and veggies ethically iffy.

It could be argued that we have entered the Age of un-Enlightenment - where our great institutions seem hellbent on trashing the wisdom that has been built up over centuries, all in a vainglorious effort to preen and seem progressive.

Well to them I say, 'Let them eat kale' ... but only after they have asked for permission from Mother Nature first!

- Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer

The story Let them eat kale first appeared on Queensland Country Life.

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