Home » Features » What If Plants Feel Pain Too?

How then, can those who practise great compassion
feed on the flesh and blood of living beings?

– The Buddha (Surangama Sutra)

A common yet inadequate argument against a meat-reduced or meat-free diet is the speculation that plants might experience pain too, like animals. As many plants are eaten by vegetarians and vegans, do they ‘create’ more suffering? Plants are indeed life forms, but not sentient beings, as they are not complex enough (e.g. have no nervous system) to feel pain. A chicken who is about to be slaughtered feels fear and suffers under the knife, while these reactions do not occur to a carrot being uprooted and chopped. Even if a carrot feels pain, it is obvious that it is much less than that of a chicken. But what if plants really do feel ‘pain’, that is hard to measure? If plants and animals both feel pain, here are three ways of looking at the dilemma, with conclusions that follow:

(1) If animals feel more pain than plants, we should eat less animals. But if a number of plants are instead eaten for a meal, will the total ‘pain’ caused be equal or more than that caused through eating an animal? No – because this animal ate many more plants in his lifetime, which makes eating him linked to even more ‘pain’. We should thus eat plants more directly, to reduce harm to both plants and animals. (2) If plants feel more ‘pain’ than animals, should we eat less plants? But if less plants are eaten, while eating more animals, and since the animals ate many more plants in their lifetime, eating them is linked to even more ‘pain’. We should thus eat plants more directly, to reduce harm to both plants and animals.

(3) If the ‘pain’ of a plant being killed is equal to the pain of an animal being killed, each animal still ate many plants in his lifetime, which makes eating him linked to even more ‘pain’. We should thus eat plants more directly, to reduce harm to both plants and animals. For example, fruits are best eaten when they are ripe and ready to fall naturally (i.e. ‘die’). Why not eat more fruits? In comparison, no animals die willingly to be eaten. The ‘plants feel pain too’ smokescreen suggests, ‘Since I can’t prevent pain totally, I’m totally absolved from doing anything to prevent (or reduce) pain!’ It’s like saying, ‘Even if I donate to help the needy, I won’t be able to help all of them. So… I need not donate at all!’

What matters is doing your best now,
even if it is not the absolute best yet.

– Stonepeace

More Good Points from a Vegan Friend

[A] Of course plants have life. So do bacteria and cells. Even if we eat or drink nothing at all, the body kills millions of germs every second. Absolute non-killing is non-possible and non-existent. The ethical issue is about the unnecessary pain/suffering infliction and the intention.

[B] Plants do not experience pain in ways animals do. They have neither nerve cells nor a nerve centre. Pain would not serve any purpose for plants because they aren’t able to remove themselves from the pain-inflicting elements, unlike animals [who are forced to be unable to move away by imprisoning them].

[C] Animals need to eat many portions of plants to produce one portion of meat. When we eat meat, we would be killing a corresponding multifold amount of plants. By eating plants we would kill the least.

[D] Eat fruits… it would be the most ethical diet. The fruit is the part of the plant which it ‘wants’ to give. When edible fruits ripen, they change their colours or scent which appeal to humans, to ‘invite’ us to take them. In taking the fruit, we help the plant sow its seeds. The nutrients in edible fruits are what we need. Mutualism. There is no taking of life of the plant… if that is the concern.

[E] Fruit-eating is aligned with the ‘nature of joyful abundance’…  i.e. the more fruits you eat, the more fruits you tend to have when we scatter the seeds of the fruits we like. Its structure of abundance is inherently there. Unfortunately, our social practices are not in line with that beauty when we incinerate our ‘trash’. In contrast, meat-eating is aligned with the ‘nature of abundance in suffering’. The more meats we eat, the more the suffering multiplies [for animals, human health and the planet].

Related Articles:

Other irrefutable good reasons to go vegetarian/vegan
http://viva.org.uk/goingveggie/index.php
The Plants-Feel-Pain Argument is Faulty
http://www.vegansoapbox.com/sorry-meat-eaters-the-plants-feel-pain-argument-is-faulty
The Other Side of the Coin
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100715091654.htm
The Buddha’s View on Meat-Eating
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2010/07/the-buddha’s-real-views-on-meat-eating

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6 Responses to “What If Plants Feel Pain Too?”

  1. This reminds me of the story of the man picking up starfishes and throwing them back into the sea. What matters is not having all the starfishes saved, but having the life of each starfish saved, ie. Your life is not equal to that of the lives of all beings in the universe, but just this one life to others means a great deal to you!

  2. Yes :-] Here is the Starfish Story to share, for those who have not heard it yet:

    “A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

    She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

    The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

    The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.

    – adapted from the Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley

  3. I would like to point out animals don’t kill the grass they eat. Also animals eat a lot of the things humans don’t eat as farm residues.
    A scientific approach here.
    “Familiarity with one particular lifeform tends to create stereotypes which can be obstructions in a consideratiIn fact, one problem with the term plant neurobiology lies with the stereotypic image of nerves as anatomical attributes peculiar to the organs of sensate, motile animals from mammals to hydra on of features of other lifeforms.Thus, it might seem fanciful to believe that similar structures should exist within the customarily perceived stereotype of insensate and immobile plantsBut, as we have seen, the existence of some plant analogue of an animal nerve and nervous system might be anticipated. Research generated in the light of the concept of plant neurobiology would, if approached with an open mind, strengthen (or weaken) this possibility. Moreover, the abstract form of Living Systems Theory provides a way of dispelling stereotypes and permits nerves and nervous transmission to be viewed in the light of a universal channel and net subsystem.
    Reflections on plant neurobiology
    Peter W. Barlow

  4. RAMACHANDRAN February 22, 2011

    Reply to celt130

    Any life form reacts to external stimuli. And tries to avoid it if the stimuli is destructive to the organism. Pain experienced by animals or human beings is a combination of chemical reaction(which causes the nervous system to work) and Consciousness. Defence system of plants against destructive stimuli and pain share same origin(as per theory of evolution). But to perceive this chemical reaction(in plants) as pain plant needs something similar to brain(it need not be made of neurons). If the reaction of plants is taken as pain,then everything in the universe perceives pain(even lifeless also).For example If a material is heated atoms vibrate more rigorously, can it be taken as “Atoms FEEL heat!(or pain)”?

  5. Ben Scott-Pye March 21, 2014

    That’s rather unusual logic. The only reason I don’t eat animals is because I empathise with them. Mice have been scientifically proven to use their imaginations to forward think and plan out future actions in locations that they haven’t arrived at yet. They are capable of emotional responses to environmental stimuli such a fear, jealousy and joy and are capable of forming bonds with others. I think it’s wrong to take away that experience from them.

    It’s not informed by the idea that they were once human because I don’t believe in reincarnation, and however many plants they ate is irrelevant because I don’t believe in the spirit or karma, but I do think that ending their lives is morally wrong.

    I was going to more or less repeat what RAMACHANDRAN posted, except to add there there wouldn’t really be an evolutionary advantage to a plant feeling fear or pain because fear and pain are there to encourage some kind of physical reaction, like “move your hand away from the hot thing that’s burning you” or “Run away from the scary bees that could kill you”, which are responses that plants are incapable of but all animals need to survive.

  6. A common yet inadequate argument against a meat-reduced or meat-free diet is the speculation that plants might experience pain too, like animals. As many plants are eaten by vegetarians and vegans, do they ‘create’ more suffering? Plants are indeed life forms, but not sentient beings, as they are not complex enough (e.g. have no nervous system) to feel pain. A chicken who is about to be slaughtered feels fear and suffers under the knife, while these reactions do not occur to a carrot being uprooted and chopped. Even if a carrot feels pain, it is obvious that it is much less than that of a chicken. But what if plants really do feel ‘pain’, that is hard to measure? If plants and animals both feel pain, here are three ways of looking at the dilemma, with conclusions that follow:

    (1) If animals feel more pain than plants, we should eat less animals. But if a number of plants are instead eaten for a meal, will the total ‘pain’ caused be equal or more than that caused through eating an animal? No – because this animal ate many more plants in his lifetime, which makes eating him linked to even more ‘pain’. We should thus eat plants more directly, to reduce harm to both plants and animals.

    (2) If plants feel more ‘pain’ than animals, should we eat less plants? But if less plants are eaten, while eating more animals, and since the animals ate many more plants in their lifetime, eating them is linked to even more ‘pain’. We should thus eat plants more directly, to reduce harm to both plants and animals.

    (3) If the ‘pain’ of a plant being killed is equal to the pain of an animal being killed, each animal still ate many plants in his lifetime, which makes eating him linked to even more ‘pain’. We should thus eat plants more directly, to reduce harm to both plants and animals. For example, fruits are best eaten when they are ripe and ready to fall naturally (i.e. ‘die’). Why not eat more fruits? In comparison, no animals die willingly to be eaten. The ‘plants feel pain too’ smokescreen suggests, ‘Since I can’t prevent pain totally, I’m totally absolved from doing anything to prevent (or reduce) pain!’ It’s like saying, ‘Even if I donate to help the needy, I won’t be able to help all of them. So… I need not donate at all!’

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