What about plants?
In chapter 2, Keith begins to write about an ongoing theme: vegetarians’ supposedly biased attitude towards vegetable life: “…if we’re extra eco-righteous, we throw the seeds on the compost heap, where time, heat and bacteria kill them. One goal of any good compost scheme, after all, is to kill any lingering seeds. None of this is what the tree had in mind. The tree isn’t offering sweetness out of the goodness of its heartwood. It’s striking a bargain, and even though we’ve shaken hands and collected, we aren’t carrying through on our side of the deal. There’s a glaring anthropocentrism in this argument, which is strange coming from people espousing a specific politic of animal liberation…Why are we humans allowed to take without giving? Isn’t that called exploitation? Or at the very least, stealing? Fruit isn’t, as claimed, ‘the only freely given food.’ The point of that fruit is not humans.”
She leaves this out: The point of animals is not humans, either. That animals have been held in captivity as farming instruments/food production is not what those animals had in mind. If farmed animals had not been constructed by centuries of genetic selection, and subtle and violent domination to make them docile, they would most likely never chose to be on those farm. If the gates, cages, crates, or whatever else were not there, do we honestly think those animals would stay? That they would asked to be bred generation after generation as instruments in captivity? Any reasonable person knows that the answer to this is a huge “no”.
She writes: “If killing is the problem, the life of one grass-fed cow will feed me for an entire year. But a single vegan meal of plant babies—rice grains, almonds, soybeans—ground up or boiled alive, will involve hundreds of deaths. Why don’t they matter?” The comparison between the death of sentient beings, and the death of plant, grain, and legume matter, is a disingenous one. Vegans do not have a simplistic idea of this, as Keith won’t stop asserting; on the contrary, vegans admit to and try to wrestle with how complicated the reality of sentience is, instead of throwing the issue out the window or genralizing sentience into absurdity, just because they can’t find a perfect solution. Plants and animals have wildly different interests, different mechanisms of life, and differently functioning bodies. There is, effectively, despite a couple of pop-science books about the issue, no scientific proof that plants feel pain or have awareness similar to that of sentient beings–especially intelligent mammals, who have complex nervous systems, emotional brains (limbic systems), and complicated pain mechanisms. Keith uses one of these pop-science books, The Language of Lost Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner–who, like Keith, is certainly interesting but is not a biologist, scientist, or any other kind of academic or researcher with the credentials to make claims on science–as her resource for almost her entire discussion on the possibility of any kind of “plant sentience” that might resemble animal sentience. Citations 115-141 in this section are all Bruhner’s book, with three exceptions that have to do with secondary points.
This sentience is the objective difference that complicates the question of animal and plant death. In certain situations, not all deaths are equal, in that they do not embody the same processes, results, or implications. Consider this comparison (and remember that comparisons are not the same as equations): To get an abortion, to destroy a fetus, is not the same as killing an autonomous, born human. Most radicals– and Keith is a radical feminist– understand this critical differences between the death of a fetus—a parasitic organism that lives, but is dependent on its autonomous, born, adult host, and at most stages is probably incapable of feeling pain— and the death of an autonomous, fully developed human. Nobody is excited about abortion, but pro-choice people understand its complicated and necessary nature, and inevitability of having to chose between types of “death”. (I put this in quotes only because some pro-choice people consider abortions a necessary death, and others don’t consider abortion a type of death.)
The point is, humans inevitably choose between types of destruction– we certainly do not disagree with Keith on this point, and we’re glad she talks about it. But in terms of food, this is not the same as having a flippant disregard for plants. As a vegan, I’m attempting to find the solution that offers the least unnecessary human destruction. There is physically felt torture and pain involved in carnism, and this need not be inevitable, we need not add it to the endless pile of unnecessary destruction we’ve already caused. “What about plant life?” is one of the classic fallacious arguments against a vegan diet, one which distracts from the issue of the individual sentient animal by trying to equate the conditions of different life forms. To assert or imply that we “overlook” the deaths of plants because we focus on the supposedly more important deaths of animals, is a bit like saying that all genders won’t have true equality until male-bodied people can get abortions. It’s an irrelevant framing of the issue, a distraction from and unwillingness to deal with the issue’s complicated realities.
At the end of the day, the “what about plants” issue can be overridden by the fact that, no matter what you feed your farmed animals, no matter what your method of farming– even if it’s animal-based permaculture– these animals we force into agriculture are involved in the “hundreds of deaths” of plant beings, too. Even the most sustainable farms use large amounts of energy and water keeping and feeding farmed animals, where they could be growing sustainable plant-based crops and using non-animal methods to keep topsoil healthy instead. In fact, “humane” and “grass-fed” farms often use more than double the amount of land than “industrial” ones. The general erasure of this fact is one of the major myths about grass-fed farming. And there’s no way around the fact that raising cattle is the leading cause of global warming, surpassing all combined forms of transportation in its production of methane and other greenhouse gasses. At no point in this chapter does Keith give attention to the rabid destructiveness of animal agriculture– no matter what the type, large or small farms, grass or grain. Because animals need to eat if we are to eat them, then there is no way around the fact that a carnist diet—any type of carnist diet— destroys more plant and animal life than a vegan one. When we eat animals, we are eating/killing plant and animal life at the same time. This does not seem like the most useful or skillful way to minimize human impact on the planet, given the workability and possibilities of sustainable, local vegetarian agriculture. Keith does not want to see the fact that vegetarian permaculture is even possible. Her only “proof” of this is a personal anecdote about visiting one unnamed psuedo-vegetarian farm community that she insultingly, and without evidence, claims was filled with “anorexic” vegans who she has diagnosed with all of her own supposedly vegan-caused health problems. See our “Busting myths-Vegan permaculture” page for actual information about vegan permaculture.
Another way to put it: Industrial vegetable farming is awful and unsustainable in lots of ways. Industrial meat farming is worse. Permaculture might be part of our solution. Vegan permaculture is more sustainable than animal permaculture. For every animal-based farming practice, there seems to be a more sustainable plant-based one.