Panic in the cabbage patch

Posted on February 19, 2012


I once had a horrific nightmare that giant, tentacled cabbages were chasing me across a field. When I woke in a cold sweat and crawled, snivelling, into my parents’ bed I was assured that I would never have to do battle with these sprouty fiends, there was no such thing as a walking, talking cabbage, and that it was best for everyone if I just bloody well went back to sleep.

However, scientists at the University of Exeter have recently discovered that cabbages actually constantly communicate with each other via a sort of ‘secret language’, and certainly aren’t the passive organisms we think them to be. Be afraid, dear readers, be very afraid.

For their experiment, the scientists added the protein luciferase – which is responsible for making fireflies glow in the dark – to cabbage plant DNA. Once their verdant victims were in full bloom they snipped a leaf off a plant, triggering the release of methyl jasmonate gas, which, thanks to the luciferase, could be monitored on camera. No Day of the Triffids to be sure, but it must have made interesting viewing.

So, while they don’t shriek ‘STOP STABBING ME YOU NUTTER’, it seems that cabbages do indeed react to scissor-based assault. What’s more, the scientists noted that as soon as this gas was emitted, the nearby cabbage plants sensed imminent danger and began secreting toxic chemicals usually reserved to fend off predators like caterpillars.

There you have it. Visual proof that plants can sense and communicate with each other. There may be a pretty gaping chasm between this interplay of warning signals, and the cabbage-based apocalyptic vision of my childhood – but don’t say I didn’t warn you when we’re all living in lettuce boxes and sending our children to cabbage school.

But if cabbages are sentient beings, possessing consciousness and awareness of danger, what does this mean for those that adopt a plant-based diet out of compassion for living things – i.e. animals? If your rationale for avoiding bacon stems from an aversion to causing pain to pigs, where does that leave you when plants too could be aware of their imminent slaughter? Could they even be watching and listening to us?

There are so many good arguments for vegetarianism that fall outside the animal suffering debate. However if you’ve gone veggie purely to avoid creature cruelty, perhaps you need to think twice before chomping into your broccoli, as it lies cowering in fear on your plate.

The debate surrounding the consciousness of plants has further historical reach than you might think. Back in the 1900s Sir J.C. Bose – an Indian scientist, writer, archaeologist and all round polymath – carried out a whole host of research to deduce the claim that plants respond to certain stimuli in the same way that animals do. He designed a revolutionary electrical instrument, called a Crescograph, which could measure a plant’s internal response to touch, sound, temperature and smell, among other things.

Essentially, he discovered that plant stimuli triggered transmission of an electrical impulse within plant cells, which could speed up or slow down depending on the stimulus. So although we can’t see a plant reacting to having a leaf ripped off, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel pain, as a dog would if its leg was ripped off.

Disclaimer – NO dogs were harmed in the making of this blog.

Pursuing a cruelty-free lifestyle is a noble aim, but it’s obviously not as straightforward as you’d think. How do you decide what you can eat, when you just can’t be sure if it’s suffered to reach your plate? Maybe fruitarians are on the right track, only eating what falls naturally from the tree. A moral concept of nutrition indeed, but I, for one, am not ready for a dietary shift to berries and pumpkin seeds. Those cabbages will just have to reconcile with their fate…

Posted in: Society