If you’re a vegan, you’ve probably had someone ask you one of these three things at some point in your life. First, where do you get your protein? Second, what would you do if you were trapped on a desert island? And third, don’t plants feel pain? For us, the answers usually go something like, “No,” “How likely is that to actually happen?” and “Tofu, beans, and Beyond Burgers.” But, taking into consideration new research, we may have to rethink that last one. Or do we?
According to a recent study, plants make frantic noises when they are cut or need water, indicating distress. But the fact remains that plants don’t have brains or central nervous systems. So what do the noises mean? Here, we take a closer look at the findings.
What are the study findings?
A study, published in the journal Cell in March, suggested that tomato, tobacco, and cacti plants all emit short ultrasonic clicks.
The research team from Tel Aviv University, MIT, and Harvard noted that when plants are healthy, these clicks are very slow and the plants seem generally pretty quiet. But when they don’t have enough water or they’ve been cut, the clicks speed up.
The clicks can’t be picked up by normal human hearing, so to determine whether the plants were making the sounds, the team used ultrasonic microphones to conduct the research. They then fed these sounds into a computer, which split the sounds into healthy and “distressed” plants.
Further study is needed into the clicking noises and what causes them, but the researchers believe they’re likely due to a passive process called cavitation. This is when sap vaporizes, filling the tracheids with water vapor. This means that the sounds could be the air bubbles popping inside the plants.
So does this mean that plants can feel pain?
Lead researcher Lilach Hadany told Insider that the findings are not evidence that plants can definitely “feel” pain like humans and other animals do.
“We cannot say the plant feels stress and therefore, makes sounds. It might be that the sounds are made completely passively, like a physical process,” Hadany explained.
But it does likely indicate that plants are exchanging information with the environment around them, and we may be able to benefit from this, too. Hadany explained that tomato plants, for example, seem to start making distressed noises before they show any signs of wilting, which could help tomato farmers keep their crops healthy.
The study adds to a growing body of research that suggests that the plant world can actually communicate. For example, last year, one scientist theorized that mushrooms may actually be using electrical impulses as a form of communication. But again, much more research is needed into this subject to understand what is going on.
“We do not know if there is a direct relationship between spiking patterns in fungi and human speech. Possibly not,” Professor Andrew Adamatzky told the Guardian. “On the other hand, there are many similarities in information processing in living substrates of different classes, families, and species. I was just curious to compare.”
Why going vegan is still the most compassionate diet
Plants are living things, with fascinating ways of keeping themselves alive and communicating with the environment around them. There’s no doubt, scientists still have much to understand about the wildlife around us.
But does this all mean we should stop eating plants? Let’s cut to the very obvious chase: no. If we didn’t eat them, we’d struggle to survive.
While animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has indicated that if it was proven that plants felt pain, it would consider promoting the fruitarian diet (which is when you eat nothing but fruits that have fallen from trees—it is not recommended by most nutrition experts), the group remains skeptical that this will actually happen.
“It shouldn’t come as a shock that plants make noise,” Elisa Allen, PETA’s vice president of programs, told MailOnline. “[It’s] likely from the formation and bursting of air bubbles in the plant’s vascular system—given that they communicate via fungal networks to warn each other of impending threats.”
She added that if anyone was concerned about the welfare of plants, going vegan still makes sense. After all, eating plants directly, instead of feeding them to animals and then eating the animals, means that fewer living things are harmed.
Other animal-rights advocates have dismissed the idea that plants feel pain in the way that we do as “ridiculous.” Rory Cockshaw of animal-rights group Viva! said that the sounds linked with cavitation can’t be compared with “the cry of a pig when suffocating in a gas chamber.”
This is because pigs, like most other animals, have a central nervous system and a brain, which is the part of the body responsible for perceiving pain. Plants don’t have either of these things. “As a vegan, I would feel bad eating animals, because animals have nervous systems—they’re sentient—they have the ability to feel pain,” said Cockshaw. “Plants do not have the ability to feel pain, or to experience the world.”