What do plants think of vegetarianism?

Among the many arguments against eating meat, one seems undeniable: Animals don’t want to be eaten. What about plants?

Sometimes, plants do want you to eat certain parts of them. Most fruits — apples, watermelons, and avocados — depend on animals to take the fruit, eat it, and deposit the seeds in a place where a new plant might be able to grow. That’s how plants expand their territories.

Some plants know we’ll eat their seeds and use a brute-force strategy to cope. Cereal grains like wheat or rice produce so many seeds at once that we animals can’t eat them all. Some nut-bearing trees do the same thing: in “mast years” oaks produce an massive number of acorns, guaranteeing that a few will get the chance to germinate. I can’t imagine, though, that the grains and trees are overjoyed to feed us.

Prairie grass wants animals to eat its leaves. In the United States Great Plains, bison and other grazers tend to munch everything above ground. Grass faces competition from other plants. The stems of their competitors rise above the ground, but grass stems are actually underground, so when bison chew their way across the landscape, they inflict mortal damage on the competition. Grasses can easily replace their lost leaves.

We humans eat a lot of grass seeds — such as corn and rye — but not a lot of grass leaves. When we do eat the leaves of a plant, we tend to chop off the entire plant, such as a head (bud) of cabbage or lettuce, which is mortal damage. Carrots and potatoes are roots, and artichokes and broccoli are flowers, and plants undoubtedly consider those parts valuable. They clearly don’t want to be eaten that way: think of all the plants that grow thorns or poisons to defend against us. They fight back.

We are predators of animals and plants. When possible, plants use our hunger to their advantage, or they find ways to minimize the damage, or they try to fight us off. This, I think, is the difference between meat and vegetables. Cows don’t necessarily realize that we intend to eat them. Tomatoes and cactuses have us figured out.

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