The concept of plants feeling pain is often thrown around as a way of trying to throw vegans off course, making us feel like we aren’t doing the right thing. This is of course ridiculous. The evidence that separates plants and animals (including human animals), when it comes to pain is absolutely overwhelming.
Of course, it is impossible to ever know what another species that cannot communicate with us is feeling, but we can only use the scientific information we have, right? Let’s dive into it.
Can Plants Feel Pain?
As far as we know, plants cannot feel pain, at least nothing like the sensation of pain as we know it. They lack the nervous system, brain, and pain receptors to do so. Perhaps the strongest indicator is the fight or flight response, the defense mechanism that humans and non-human animals have developed through millions of years of evolution. We feel pain and we instinctively respond by escaping or defending ourselves. There is no evidence that plants have any physical defense response to potentially painful stimuli, mostly because they have no means to move away from pain or danger. Some evidence suggests they may have chemical responses, but this absolutely does not suggest they feel pain of any discernible kind.
Of course, there is always a chance we are wrong and plants have sentience or intelligence that we cannot yet detect or understand. But this is highly unlikely, and regardless, veganism would still be the way to go for avoiding as much suffering as possible for two reasons: one, many more plants are killed to feed to farmed animals than are needed by those eating a plant-based diet; and two, we know for absolute certainty that animals feel pain, so why would we chose a diet that definitely causes pain over one that almost certainly doesn’t?
Can Plants Feel Sensations?
Some studies have shown that plants can feel sensations like touch or vibration, and that this can result in instinctive responses. The University of Missouri’s research suggests that plants can sense the weight of a caterpillar feeding on their leaves and this can elicit a chemical defense response. Other studies have suggested that leaf cells, when being eaten, can signal the danger to other parts of the plant, alerting them to begin repairing the damage.
These responses cannot be likened to pain in any regard. They are instinctive, chemical defense responses designed only to further plant species in an evolutionary sense.
Do Plants Feel Stress?
Research from the university of Tel Aviv has suggested that plants emit distress signals when they are uprooted or have stems cut. Whilst this may be true and observable at an ultrasonic level, these are chemical distress responses, and likening them to pain or screams, as some people have, is wildly misleading. Chemical defense, without a nervous system or brain to process the information, is not comparable to meaningful pain or suffering in any way.
Do Plants Know They Are Being Eaten?
Anyone who tried to suggest this would be taking the argument much too far. In order to feel this kind of complex cognitive awareness, an organism needs a brain or some kind of nervous system. Any chemical distress signals sent out in stressful situations are also only emitted while a plant is connected to its roots, long before it is eaten.
Again, there may be some complex sentience that we have no ability to understand yet, but until the evidence and science suggest otherwise, we aren’t going to feel bad when chomping on our broccoli and kale.
Pain is complex and humans are very quick to apply their own experience to other species. The fact is, we cannot know exactly what another species is feeling, we can only go on what we see in their behavior and what we know of their biology. Farmed animals have a nervous system and a brain and they express clear physical and emotional pain responses when under stress. Yet we still steal their babies from them, imprison them, de-beak them, cut off their tails, clip their wings, and cut their throats all in the name of profit. It’s easy to become frustrated when someone who continues to fund such violent acts suggests that you are a bad person for eating plants.
Even if plants did feel some kind of pain, humans need to eat, and veganism would still be the kindest and most ethical option by far. Luckily, there is no evidence to suggest they do, so we can happily continue to chow down on our veg and leave the complex, sentient, and emotional animals off our plates.
If you feel like joining us on that journey why not sign up to our 30-day vegan challenge. We’re here to help you every step of the way!