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This Week at the Editors' Table: Do Plants Feel Pain?

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In Overheard, we're sharing all of the best tidbits we couldn't help picking up onfrom smart tips on the Hotline to funny quotes heard around the water cooler and more.

Cutting Microgreens


This week, Design & Home Editor Amanda Sims questioned when plants die—is it at the moment you pick them? If you pluck a cherry tomato off the vine and pop it directly into your mouth, is it still alive when you eat it? (Yes, we know. It is amazing the places our minds go before we've had enough coffee.)

We all chuckled, but then paused: Hadn't we heard about a study regarding whether or not plants can feel pain? You know what happened next: We fell down an internet rabbit hole, and our first find wasn't encouraging: "The smell we associate with freshly cut grass is actually a chemical distress call, one used by plants to beg nearby critters to save them from attack (usually it's an affront by insects, but in this case, it's lawnmower blades)."

Assistant Editor Leslie Stephens summed up the collective feelings of the team, saying "This makes me way more sad than it should."


So we read on. In Michael Pollan's The Intelligent Plant essay, he asks František Baluška, a Slovak cell biologist if plants can feel pain, and Baluška's response wasn't reassuring:

“If plants are conscious, then, yes, they should feel pain,” he said. “If you don’t feel pain, you ignore danger and you don’t survive. Pain is adaptive.” I must have shown some alarm. “That’s a scary idea,” he acknowledged with a shrug. “We live in a world where we must eat other organisms.”

On the plus side, in the same essay Stefano Mancuso, an Italian plant physiologist notes, “A plant has a modular design, so it can lose up to ninety per cent of its body without being killed.” We take that to mean that while the tomato plant is aware of the fact that you picked a tomato, the tomato is likely not cursing you as you chew it.

This isn’t enough to have any of us editors writing off vegetables as an immoral indulgence, but the findings are curious. Are plants conscious, or just alive, and does that affect how we should eat? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Photo by Crystal Liepa