TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Rooting Out the Motive of “Plant Rights” Advocates

Almost forty years after animal rights advocates began asking us to put down our steak knives, plant advocates may start asking us to relinquish our salad forks as well.

Plants have rights too, they say, and we ought to “reconsider our ethical approach to eating them.” Michael Marder, a philosopher writing recently for the New York Times, bases a call for “plant liberation” on the idea that plants possess a primitive form of “awareness,” in that they have a capacity to react to certain stimuli, and that they engage in a simple form of biochemical communication, through the release of chemical hormones that can send signals to other nearby plants.

Now, most readers of this argument will think that the idea of plant rights is silly—indeed, many responders to his article said so. But while Marder’s argument is ridiculous, his goal is serious, dangerous, and not to be ignored. Here we should take the advice of Ellsworth Toohey, villain of The Fountainhead: “Don’t bother to examine a folly—ask yourself only what it accomplishes.”

So what does Marder seek to accomplish through his call for “plant liberation”?

Marder reveals part of his motive when he explains that, contrary to the implication of his article’s title, “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?,” he does not proscribe all consumption of plants:

How do these new [scientific] findings [about plants] bear upon dietary ethics? First, they do not mean that we should stop eating plants. Rather, the idea is not to reduce plants to storehouses of carbohydrates and vitamins or to that other source of energy so widely applauded today, biofuel. . . . It is especially pernicious to grow plants from sterile seeds, already robbed of their reproductive potential, patented and appropriated by profit-driven enterprises. Not only do these agricultural “innovations” harm farmers, who are forced to buy seeds from multinational corporations, but they also violate the capacity for reproduction at the core of the Aristotelian vegetal soul. [emphasis added]

Adding to the clarity of his goal, Marder goes on to say that “[v]iolence against plants backfires, as it leads to violence against humans and against the environment as a whole, for instance when plants are genetically modified and made resistant to insects, pests, or disease.”

Marder is not advancing the idea of plant rights because he cares about the interests of plants; he has no problem with our growing and eating them. Nor is he overtly anti-farmer; he expresses concern for them. Rather, as a careful reading of Marder’s article reveals, his real animus is against profit-seeking, multinational agricultural biotechnology companies that patent and sell a variety of genetically-modified plant seeds. In short, Marder is not pro-plant, he is anti-Monsanto.

Though agricultural biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have enabled the vital production of greater yields of high-quality crops, allowing for cheaper and more widely available food, Marder seeks to curtail these life-promoting values through a sophistical argument for “plant rights.” In so doing, he reveals himself to be no different from scores of other environmentalists who, though they hide behind a veneer of concern for “the environment,” are actually anti-industry and, therefore, are anti-man.

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Image: Monsanto

Posted in: Individual Rights and Law, Science and Technology

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Melanie H Charron

    I too, do not like the farming practices of today for the very same reasons expressed in this article. I protest by buying locally from small family farms who purport to be organic (I hope, anyway!). I refuse to buy anything from an orchard where it is painfully clear to me that ALL the trees are clones…when was the last time you saw a peach or apple orchard where all the trees were EXACTLY the same size with EXACTLY the same branches…just too freaky for me!

  • Mary Altman

    Well, if we can’t eat animals and we can’t eat plants, what exactly do the tree huggers suggest we do to keep ourselves alive, pray tell?

  • Martin Lundqvist

    The Tree Huggers will accept atonement by you stabbing yourself in the leg with a fork, along with a generous donation to the Church of Climatology.

  • Martin Lundqvist

    Personally, I have no problem with corporations making money, so long as they provide a superior product in both price, quality and standard. Since GM and cloning help achieve these ends (despite the false claims by greens), I am content to let this be a WIN-WIN situation for me and big business.

  • Phillip Schearer

    Ms. Charron: When you say “I too, do not like the farming practices of today for the very same reasons expressed in this [NYT] article”, does that mean you too are “against profit-seeking, multinational agricultural biotechnology companies”? You seem not to realize that the main drive behind “organic” food is anti-techology.

  • frank jaworski

    perhaps marder’s next sequel article will be titled “you won’t believe what the peas told me!”

  • DavidKramer

    Mmmmm, good God let’s eat! Short story reference.

  • Glenn J. Shapiro

    So all we’ll have left to eat is Soylent Green.
    Yeah, REAL good idea.

  • C. Aoyagi

    Marder is a nut case- I have no patience for this sort of bullshit science, but ,BIG but-
    If an individual, a company (Monsanto, Dow..) or a government agency (FDA, USDA…etc) moves to eliminate my CHOICE (by force) in what I consume- food OR goods, how is that justified by objectivist thinking? I want a response. I want to know why it is okay for a women to choose to have an abortion or not (it IS her choice), but it is not ok for that same women to choose whether she wants to consume something that might or might not have questionable science attached to it. Am I missing something? The moves that many of the chemical companies (Monsanto, DOW, etc) are making TO CONTROL food and the production of it, are hard to digest. (Pun intended) So, give me a reasoned response as to why Monsanto isn’t just using us all as a means to an end, and I’ll change my mind.

  • David Blankenau

    …”If an individual, a company (Monsanto, Dow..) or a government agency
    (FDA, USDA…etc) moves to eliminate my CHOICE (by force) in what I
    consume- food OR goods, how is that justified by objectivist thinking?”… Objectivism DOESN’T justify it – but why do you think ANY company is attempting to limit choice or control anything? That’s what the government is doing, NOT corporations. Corporations can’t force anything on anybody; they depend on VOLUNTARY dealings with customers, suppliers, and employees.
    Monsanto, Dow, et al are attempting to IMPROVE their products, but government interference (e.g. regulations, restrictions, minimum wage laws) makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to do so.

    Objectivism explicitly advocates the principle of INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS, which is all about choice and non-initiation of force. People like Marder ignore this concept entirely (or rail against it). Like Ross stated, this is “anti-industry” (and anti-capitalist), and as such is anti-human life.
    As to “using us all as a means to an end”, isn’t that what WE do when we buy from companies as well? This is the essence of “mutual trade to mutual benefit”. It is inherently a WIN-WIN situation!

  • Dale Netherton

    Assigning rights to rocks is next. Rights are a human discovery and pertain to man alone. Too bad so many humans don’t grasp the sacredness of rights for humans and the destruction of the concept by assigning it to anything that exists.

  • Stephen Grossman

    I read a sci-fi story about a device that heard the screams of plants as they were pulled from the ground.