I have often felt there is a metaphysical paradox caused by our need to feed our bodies and our conflicting desire to be kind to all living creatures. I was that annoying child who loved watching a Disney documentary on the animal kingdom right up until the moment when the lion got hungry and chased down a hapless gazelle to have for dinner. I recognize that the lion is a carnivore and was hungry, but I was still rooting for the gazelle, and when the lion caught up to it, ripped open its throat, and started chowing down, I started crying and turned off the television.
I felt strongly enough about my desire not to harm other living creatures that I tried to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle in my youth with mixed success. And then the real confusion began in 1970, when I read an article that claimed research showed that plants were also capable of experiencing fear and pain when they were threatened by herbivores. What is a person who truly wants to be a kind and loving human being supposed to do if everything their body is programmed to eat is a living creature with awareness and the ability to experience fear or pain. On the one hand, it made sense to me that plants were also living creatures, but if they were capable of experiencing pain, then I was either going to have to inflict pain regularly or starve to death.
Recently, when I decided to make some changes in my overall approach to my diet, I once again became concerned about what kind of diet could go along with my continued desire to treat all living creatures with kindness and compassion. As I tried to sort out this paradox in my own mind, I realized that it had been a long time since I had read that article and maybe newer research gave a different answer, one that would allow me to treat other creatures kindly without starving. So I googled the question “do plants experience fear or pain?” and the search engine promptly handed me 1800 results.
It turned out there had been a lot of additional research since 1970 and most of it overwhelmingly stated that plants were aware when a predator was close by and that the plants took actions to try to prevent the predator from eating them. Many of the researchers felt that one of the plant’s most effective methods of dealing with predators (and plants do consider humans to be predators) was to produce a protein called lectin. In testing, with two plants in the same room, and a predator (like a snail) placed on one of the plants, both plants immediately produced a substance that coated their leaves with this protein (Clearly even the plant without the predator right on it was able to sense the danger). For a small predator like a snail, the lectin was sometimes strong enough to harm the predator. But with a larger predator, like a human, the protein or lectin was not strong enough to immediately harm the predator but with repeated exposure was strong enough to cause some harm to the predator’s digestive tract.
I had never heard of lectin before, at least not by that name. There are thousands of types of lectin, but two of the best-known kinds that have gotten a lot of attention recently, are peanuts and gluten. Most of us are able to tolerate these lectins, unless we have a peanut allergy or Celliac Disease. Because of the quantities of these lectins in our foods however, when they are ingested frequently, they can incite a kind of chemical warfare in the body that causes inflammation that may lead to serious health issues. This research further states that most plants actually want to make you ill most of the time but there are exceptions. For example, a tomato plant has seeds and a skin that produces lectins that are harmful when it is eaten out of season or when it was picked while still not fully ripe. When the plant is fully ripe and is picked at that moment of ripeness, because the plant wants its seeds to be spread by predators who eat the fruit (yes, a tomato is a fruit), it does not produce lectin to harm the predator.
In other words, the plant, which does have a strong desire to carry on its own species, does not try to poison the predator when the predator will eat the fruit and then poop out the seeds in a location that will cause a new plant to grow. At any other time, when the fruit is not ripe, the tomato will produce lectin that shows up primarily in its seeds and skin. Removing the seeds and skin of a tomato picked green can reduce the amount of lectin ingested. This would not have been a problem in the days when most of us grew our own produce and picked it while it was in season, but in today’s world, most fruits and vegetables are picked out of season when they are still not fully ripe so that they will not be damaged during the long trip to market. When they are artificially ripened (using a gas), the lectins are present when the fruit is eaten.
According to Dr. Steven Gundry’s research in his book called Plant Paradox, the way our grains, vegetables, and fruits are processed today is the primary reason why most of us have been overdosed with lectin and suffer from inflammation as a result.
While it made me feel a little better about having eaten grains, fruits and vegetables most of my life knowing that they had at least had a chance to get even with me, I still would prefer not to be inflicting pain and suffering on any of my fellow living creatures. After reading about how plants use lectins to try to stop us from eating them, I became curious about whether animals had similar ways of getting even with the predators that hunt them down to eat them. Another quick Google search showed me thousands of articles on the chemicals that are produced in an animal’s body when it is being chased by a predator. It seems those chemicals are as harmful to us as the plant’s lectins are.
All this research was making my search for the perfect dietary plan difficult. Not only was I destined to inflict pain on some of my fellow living creatures, but I was going to have to try to find a way to keep them from inflicting their own brand of pain on me. And I was no further along in my desire to treat all creatures with love and compassion. I don’t fully understand why this world was set up in a way that requires us to feed these human bodies and then makes it impossible to do so without the pain and suffering of other life forms. I ended up with a dietary plan which is far from perfect but is as close as I have been able to get to meeting all of my own goals and being as considerate as possible of my fellow living creatures.
I’m committed to at least minimizing the amount of pain and suffering I cause in my own search to help my body survive. I now eat far less meat than I have in the past, and I buy only meat that is as humanely provided as possible. Since I lack the hunting skills to kill my own meat, I try to purchase meat only from vendors that treat the animals humanely, even kindly, right up to the moment when they are killed to provide food for humans. A good hunter practices his skills extensively to make sure that he or she can kill any animal with as quick and clean a shot as possible so that the animal experiences a minimum of pain and suffering. It’s true, for example, that eggs from pasture-raised hens cost more than the ones produced by chickens that lived their entire lives confined to cages, but it feels worth it to me.
My new dietary plan consists of lots of vegetables and a few fruits with as much as possible locally grown and picked in season when the plant is most willing to be eaten. It consists of much smaller amounts of meat (I would like to get this down to zero) provided by vendors whose animals are treated and killed as humanely as possible; animals who’ve been allowed to have a good life before their sacrifice. It was hard to decide where to draw the lines on this dietary plan. To do so, I had to imagine a world where there was a much larger predator who might want to eat me for dinner. Since the planet appears to have been set up by a higher power that is believed by many to be a loving power, it seemed like there had to be a way to sustain my body’s life while causing the least amount of pain to other living creatures.
When I imagined being the prey rather than the predator, I realized the most important thing to me was to be allowed to have as much of a life as possible before my own was sacrificed to support a more dominant species. I also wanted my body’s death, when the time came for me to be dinner, to occur as quickly and painlessly as possible while understanding that it’s probably impossible to ever experience one’s own death to provide a food source for another as anything but extremely difficult. I don’t know why the rules on this planet were set up the way they are so that every life form seems to have to take a turn at providing food for other life forms but I accept that the situation is not likely to change.
I wish I could say had come up with the method of being able to sustain my own body’s life without inflicting any sort of pain and suffering on any other creature including plants but I haven’t come up with the way to do that. Every living creature possesses the drive to survive and pass on its genes to future generations. Part of the paradox is that the plants and animals being consumed don’t just accept their fate of being our dinner. They are often able to get even with their predators by producing toxic chemicals for the predator to ingest. If a large predator was chasing me down and hunting me for dinner, I’m quite certain a cocktail of extremely toxic chemicals would be running throughout my system by the time the predator caught me and succeeded at killing and eating me.
My new dietary plan is working very well. The food tastes wonderful, there is very little extra effort involved in purchasing it at the right time and from the right vendor, and in preparing it in a manner that reduces the toxins as much as possible. Since I’ve been following this new program, perhaps as a result of finally working out a way to at least reduce as much as possible the harm I cause to other living creatures, I have begun feeling much healthier, lost more than a quarter of the weight I wanted to lose, and feel I can sustain this manner of eating for the rest of my life,
I have not, however, been able to resolve my metaphysical paradox. I still haven’t figured out any way to completely eliminate any pain and suffering caused to others. If any of you have some insight that might help me resolve this paradox, I would be very interested in hearing it. Short of ceasing to eat anything, which would result in the loss of my own body, I don’t have any further ideas of what can be done to meet my spiritual goals of being a kind and compassionate human being. In today’s world, most of us delegate the job of killing our prey to others. It’s still our responsibility to see that that job is done as humanely as possible. I fully appreciate the people whose job it is to provide us with food and who work hard to do it in as humane a way as possible. If I had to kill my own food, I might find it easier to meet my goal of becoming a vegetarian. Then again, I might not be able to hear that tomato scream, but that doesn’t mean it’s not doing it. So perhaps vegetarianism isn’t going to resolve the whole issue.