In case youve forgotten the section on the food web from high school biology, heres a quick refresher.
Plants make up the base of every food chain of the food web (also called the food cycle). Plants use available sunlight to convert water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air into glucose, which gives them the energy they need to live. Unlike plants, animals cant synthesize their own food. They survive by eating plants or other animals.
Clearly, animals eat plants. Whats not so clear from this picture is that plants also eat animals. They thrive on them, in fact (just Google fish emulsion). In my new book, A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism, I call it the transitivity of eating. And I argue that this means one cant be a vegetarian.
Chew on this
Ill pause to let the collective yowls of both biologists and (erstwhile) vegetarians subside.
A transitive property says that if one element in a sequence relates in a certain way to a second element, and the second element relates in the same way to a third, then the first and third elements relate in the same way as well.
Take the well-worn trope you are what you eat. Lets say instead that we are who we eat. This makes the claim more personal and also implies that the beings who we make our food arent just things.
How our food lives and dies matters. If we are who we eat, our food is who our food eats, too. This means that we are who our food eats in equal measure.
Plants acquire nutrients from the soil, which is composed, among other things, of decayed plant and animal remains. So even those who assume they subsist solely on a plant-based diet actually eat animal remains as well.
This is why its impossible to be a vegetarian.
For the record, Ive been a vegetarian for about 20 years and nearly vegan for six. Im not opposed to these eating practices. That isnt my point. But I do think that many vegetarians and vegans could stand to pay closer attention to the experiences of the beings who we make our food.
For example, many vegetarians cite the sentience of animals as a reason to abstain from eating them. But theres good reason to believe that plants are sentient, too. In other words, theyre acutely aware of and responsive to their surroundings, and they respond, in kind, to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
Check out the work of plant scientists Anthony Trewavas, Stefano Mancuso, Daniel Chamowitz and Frantiek Baluka if you dont believe me. Theyve shown that plants share our five senses and have something like 20 more. They have a hormonal information-processing system thats homologous to animals’ neural network. They exhibit clear signs of self-awareness and intentionality. And they can even learn and teach.
Its also important to be aware that vegetarianism and veganism arent always eco-friendly. Look no further than the carbon footprint of your morning coffee, or how much water is required to produce the almonds you enjoy as an afternoon snack.
A word for the skeptics
I suspect how some biologists may respond: first, plants dont actually eat since eating involves the ingestion via chewing and swallowing of other life forms. Second, while its true that plants absorb nutrients from the soil and that these nutrients could have come from animals, theyre strictly inorganic: nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and trace amounts of other elements. Theyre the constituents of recycled minerals, devoid of any vestiges of animality.
As for the first concern, maybe it would help if I said that both plants and animals take in, consume or make use of, rather than using the word eat. I guess Im just not picky about how I conceptualize what eating entails. The point is that plants ingest carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and minerals that are then used to build and sustain their bodies. Plants consume inasmuch as they produce, and they arent the least bit particular about the origins of the minerals they acquire.
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With respect to the second concern, why should it matter that the nutrients drawn by plants from animals are inorganic? The point is that they once played in essential role in facilitating animals lives. Are we who we eat only if we take in organic matter from the beings who become our food? I confess that I dont understand why this should be. Privileging organic matter strikes me as a biologists bias.
Then theres the argument that mineral recycling cleanses the nutrients of their animality. This is a contentious claim, and I dont think this is a fact of the matter. It goes to the core of the way we view our relationship with our food. You could say that there are spiritual issues at stake here, not just matters of biochemistry.
Changing how we view our food
Lets view our relationship with our food in a different way: by taking into account the fact that were part of a community of living beings plant and animal who inhabit the place that we make our home.
Were eaters, yes, and were also eaten. Thats right, were part of the food web, too! And the well-being of each is dependent on the well-being of all.
Sumbioculture is a form of permaculture, or sustainable agriculture. Its an organic and biodynamic way of farming thats consistent with the health of entire ecosystems.
Sumbiotarians eat in harmony with their ecosystem. So they embody, literally, the idea that the well-being of our food hence, our own well-being is a function of the health of the land.
In order for our needs to be met, the needs and interests of the land must come first. And in areas where its prohibitively difficult to acquire the essential fats that we need from pressed oils alone, this may include forms of animal use for meat, manure and so forth.
Simply put, living sustainably in such an area whether its New England or the Australian Outback may well entail relying on animals for food, at least in a limited way.
All life is bound together in a complex web of interdependent relationships among individuals, species and entire ecosystems. Each of us borrows, uses and returns nutrients. This cycle is what permits life to continue. Rich, black soil is so fertile because its chock full of the composted remains of the dead along with the waste of the living.
Indeed, its not uncommon for indigenous peoples to identify veneration of their ancestors and of their ancestral land with the celebration of the life-giving character of the earth. Consider this from cultural ecologist and Indigenous scholar-activist Melissa Nelson:
The bones of our ancestors have become the soil, the soil grows our food, the food nourishes our bodies, and we become one, literally and metaphorically, with our homelands and territories.
Youre welcome to disagree with me, of course. But its worth noting that what I propose has conceptual roots that may be as old as humanity itself. Its probably worth taking some time to digest this.