It’s time to include plants in the realm of sentient creatures. Sentience is defined as “… possession of sensory organs, the ability to feel or perceive, not necessarily including the faculty of self-awareness.” (Animal Liberation Front). A creature does not need a brain to be sentient. We now understand that plants have at least 20 different sensory capabilities, can learn, store information, use memory to react to stimuli and share resources via symbiotic fungal and root community networks. The hard-headed conclusion, based on this information, is that if it is wrong to eat sentient animals because they feel pain and suffer, it is wrong to eat plants because they too, as sentient living beings, can experience suffering in some form. We cannot judge animal suffering to be more ‘serious’ than plant suffering because that would be ‘sentientism’ or the unjustified elevation of animal sentience over plant sentience. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett put it, ‘cerebrocentric’ thinking is but one form of intelligence. Chlorocentric thinking and the ‘wood-wide-web’ is a plant-based form of the acquisition of knowledge and its use (intelligence).
Does this mean we violate sentience even when we make vegetarian/vegan food consumption choices? The answer is yes. Do we then stop eating on the basis that all forms of food consumption are unethical? The answer is no.
The taking of life to give life is a universal feature of life. It is how life is taken that is the key ethical issue now that sentience has been removed from the menu of primary ethical choice. Modern industrial forms of agriculture maximise an unethical relationship to those things we eat because they violate the very foundations of life. By polluting the local environment with excess nutrients, introducing toxins and carcinogens (cides) into the food chain, using genetically modified organisms that present an irreversible risk to human and ecosystem health, removing biodiversity and being fossil fuel dependent, industrial agriculture is a short-term food production system but a longer-term life-destroyer. The overcrowding of animals and the unnatural conditions within which they live is also a feature of industrial forms of agriculture. Keeping life confined in ways that violate natural instincts to move, fly, bathe, dust bath and be part of a community of beings is ethically repugnant. Killing animals after they are herded, transported long distances and placed in stress-maximising facilities (abattoirs) is also ethically unjustifiable.
Becoming a Sumbiovore*
(*from the Greek sumbiosis, from sumbioun, to live together, from sumbios, living together)
Humans have already created agricultural systems that respect all forms of life and maintain the fertility of places that produce food sustenance over the long term. Sumbioculture in the form of permaculture, organic and biodynamic farming, agro-ecological farming and other forms of genuinely sustainable animal and vegetable production are consistent with the health of whole, complex ecosystems. They are all viable alternatives to industrial agriculture.
Sumbiovores understand that health is a delicate balance of the parts (harmony) within organic wholes at various scales. From microbiomes in the gut to the symbiotic role of fungi, manure, compost and bioturbation at the local scale, all assist in maintaining personal and ecosystem health. At the larger scale, bio-geo-chemical cycles such as those that determine the balance of nitrogen, carbon and water are what determine the health of The Earth. When the total system is healthy and human life is harmoniously integrated within it, then sumbioculture has a ghedeistual element to it. Becoming a sumbiotarian is ethically superior to becoming a vegetarian.