Do Plants Feel Pain?
Some Muslims have been misled by Internet discussions indicating that plants feel pain. This argument is used by those who wish to justify their meat consumption by claiming that because both plants and animals feel pain, there is no ethical or religious difference between killing plants for food and killing animals for food.
Not Taking “Life”
One argument begins by explaining that plants have “life,” presumably just the same as animals and humans, and thus, this argument claims that one cannot avoid taking life simply by consuming plant foods. The concept of life used in this argument is nebulous and general, and the argument does not make a moral or religious distinction between the life possessed by plants and that possessed by animals.
One author claims that if it were possible to eat a diet that did not involve taking life, he would adopt that diet immediately, but since, according to the author, a vegetarian diet also takes “life,” he states that he may as well carry on eating meat. In addition to the lack of clarification about the concept of life and the lack of distinction between animal life and plant life, the author failed to note that a diet that meets his criteria does exist. Many people follow a “fruitarian” diet, meaning that they eat fruits, some vegetables that have seeds, and nuts. Fruitarian diets do not require the taking of “life,” as plants produce fruits, seeds, and nuts so that they can be eaten. The plants neither suffer nor die to provide these foods. While we do not recommend this diet, it does meet this author’s criteria, and if the taking of “life” really is so important, this is the diet for him.
Supporters of this view of “life” also claim that since both plants and animals have life, it is better to take the life of one animal, who might feed 100 people, than to take the life of 100 or more plants to feed the same number of people. The fallacy of this argument will be investigated in more detail below.
Plants’ Inability to Feel Pain
Supporters of this theory also claim that plants feel pain and that one farmer used a device to “scientifically” catch the sounds of plants “crying out” and “screaming” in pain. They state that our limited range of hearing cannot pick up the “screams” of plants but that machines can.
The truth is that plants, when stressed, release a chemical called ethylene. This chemical indicates that the plant needs to increase cell growth or take other measures against the perceived stressor. Scientists measured levels of ethylene released from stressed plants by “listening” to them using lasers until a certain frequency was measured.
While this research shows that plants might have a stress-avoidance response, it is quite a stretch to refer to this as “pain.” It is even more erroneous to equate this response with the pain suffered by animals and human beings. Plants lack nerve endings, brains, hormones, and other structures that would allow them to experience pain. They also lack the ability to move away from sources of stress, an evolutionary trait linked with the ability to feel pain.
Even those who argue that plants feel pain and suffer should support a vegetarian diet because the number of plants that must be fed to an animal to produce enough meat for one human is greater than the number of plants required to feed that same human if he or she ate the plants directly. Meat-eaters are responsible for “killing” 10 times more plants than vegetarians, and they also kill and cause suffering to animals.
The argument that plants feel pain and suffer and that killing them is as bad as killing animals is weak and illogical. Those who use this argument to justify their continued consumption of meat should attempt to approach the debate in a more logical, scientific manner. Such claims have fooled many well-intentioned Muslims into perpetuating these falsehoods on the Internet. This is harmful to our Ummah, as it makes us appear ignorant and ill informed. We ask that all Muslims who have put forward such unfounded claims remove these claims from their Web sites and other public forums and cease spreading these fictitious claims at conferences and debates.
For more information regarding plants’ inability to feel pain, see Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.