If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?
The New York Times, April/May 2012, by Michael Marder — Imagine a being capable of processing, remembering and sharing information — a being with potentialities proper to it and inhabiting a world of its own. Given this brief description, most of us will think of a human person, some will associate it with an animal, and virtually no one’s imagination will conjure up a plant.
Since Nov. 2, however, one possible answer to the riddle is Pisumsativum, a species colloquially known as the common pea. On that day, a team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.
Curiously, having received the signal, plants not directly affected by this particular environmental stress factor were better able to withstand adverse conditions when they actually occurred. This means that the recipients of biochemical communication could draw on their “memories” — information stored at the cellular level — to activate appropriate defenses and adaptive responses when the need arose.
In 1973, the publication of “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, which portrayed vegetal life as exquisitely sensitive, responsive and in some respects comparable to human life, was generally regarded as pseudoscience. The authors were not scientists, and clearly the results reported in that book, many of them outlandish, could not be reproduced. But today, new, hard scientific data appears to be buttressing the book’s fundamental idea that plants are more complex organisms than previously thought.
The research findings of the team at the Blaustein Institute form yet another building block in the growing fields of plant intelligence studies and neurobotany that, at the very least, ought to prompt us to rethink our relation to plants. Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?
Evidently, empathy might not be the most appropriate ground for an ethics of vegetal life. But the novel indications concerning the responsiveness of plants, their interactions with the environment and with one another, are sufficient to undermine all simple, axiomatic solutions to eating in good conscience. When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who — an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good. Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics.
Recent findings in cellular and molecular botany mean that eating preferences, too, must practically differentiate between vegetal what-ness and who-ness, while striving to keep the latter intact. The work of such differentiation is incredibly difficult because the subjectivity of plants is not centered in a single organ or function but is dispersed throughout their bodies, from the roots to the leaves and shoots. Nevertheless, this dispersion of vitality holds out a promise of its own: the plasticity of plants and their wondrous capacity for regeneration, their growth by increments, quantitative additions or reiterations of already existing parts does little to change the form of living beings that are neither parts nor wholes because they are not hierarchically structured organisms. The “renewable” aspects of perennial plants may be accepted by humans as a gift of vegetal being and integrated into their diets.
But it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends. In other words, ethically inspired decisions cannot postulate the abstract conceptual unity of all plants; they must, rather, take into account the singularity of each species.
The emphasis on the unique qualities of each species means that ethical worries will not go away after normative philosophers and bioethicists have delineated their sets of definitive guidelines for human conduct. More specifically, concerns regarding the treatment of plants will come up again and again, every time we deal with a distinct species or communities of plants.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” the true identity of a princess is discovered after she spends a torturous night on top of 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds, with a single pea lodged underneath this pile. The desire to eat ethically is, perhaps, akin to this royal sensitivity, as some would argue that it is a luxury of those who do have enough food to select, in a conscious manner, their dietary patterns. But there is a more charitable way to interpret the analogy.
Ethical concerns are never problems to be resolved once and for all; they make us uncomfortable and sometimes, when the sting of conscience is too strong, prevent us from sleeping. Being disconcerted by a single pea to the point of unrest is analogous to the ethical obsession, untranslatable into the language of moral axioms and principles of righteousness. Such ethics do not dictate how to treat the specimen of Pisumsativum, or any other plant, but they do urge us to respond, each time anew, to the question of how, in thinking and eating, to say “yes” to plants.
Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. His most recent book, “Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life” will be published later this year.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World is an easily read and approachable work of non-fiction. In it, Michael Pollan profiles four plants — the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato — and tells us of their history, domestication and interrelation with people from the perspective of both the plants and the people.
The main point of these readings — and the most mind-blowing — is how the early domestication of plants by humans was driven primarily by the plants themselves.
Basically, the “domestication of plants” for human purposes did not arise from some smart human who took wild seeds and stuck them in the ground and watched to see what would happen. Early “domestic” plants came about as a result of the influences that hunter-gatherers had upon the plants they gathered — and how these plants adapted to be better dispersed by the new animal in their environment.
That is to say, plants influenced people to domesticate them, to disperse their seeds and to increase their fitness in the same ways that plants influence all other animals, both now and historically.
This elegant idea explains the origin of most of our current “domestic” plants. At the root of this explanation is the idea that humans are not the only ones to have “domesticated” plants. To explain what Jared Diamond and Michael Pollan mean by this, use the definition of domestication. According to Wikipedia (accessed on Jan 16th, 2012), “Domestication is the process whereby a population of animals or plants, through a process of artificial selection, is changed at the genetic level, accentuating traits desired by humans.” However, if we rephrase this definition and make it less human-centric and broader in scope, we find that “domestication” implies that certain animals or plants are selected for and are changed as a result, based on what is desired by the forces or species doing the selecting.
Thus we can state that other animals “domesticate” plants, too!
For a human-driven example, imagine lettuce: it has been selected to have large crunchy and delectable leaves. We want large leaves, and so we select and propagate plants with the traits we want. But… what about birds? How, when a bird species selectively prefers “larger” or “bluer” berries, is this bird not domesticating this berry species to produce the traits that the bird “wants”?
Granted this is not a deliberate process and occurs through natural selection — that is, if large blue berries are preferentially eaten, over time these traits will increase as seeds from these berries will be dispersed at a greater rate and have greater reproductive success compared to those berries that are smaller and less blue. But, because the traits that the birds “wanted” increased in frequency, can we not, according to the definition above, consider these birds to be domesticating these plants, too?
Or what about bees. Imagine if you will, that bees prefer to collect nectar from red flowers more than yellow ones. Over time, this would result in an increase in the overall prevalence of red flowers, because they are being selected for and thus experience higher pollination rates and will set more seed!
Thus based on these examples of natural selection, we can say that plants are being “domesticated” by the birds and the bees, too.
Therefore humans, the so-called “superior species” — may not have domesticated plants. Plants may have manipulated us into spreading their seeds around! That is to say, as plant populations adapted to express certain traits preferred by humans (based upon human-imposed selection pressures), those plants’ fitness increased exponentially as their seeds were spread across our farms and fields.
Michael Pollan’s idea is that our relationship with plants is not one of superiority or dominance, but rather one of mutual survival. Without our “domestic” plants, we cannot survive, and without our help, our “domesticated” plants cannot enjoy the high level of fitness and world-wide growth that they do now!
Long ago, perhaps without either side even being aware of it, some plants and a few people entered a contract; an alliance. While each gave up something (people their independence and free-ranging nature as hunter-gatherers, and plants their ability to grow in the wild), each would help the other become the most dominant species of their respective kingdoms on the planet today.
This is an amazingly different and perhaps a unique way to look at plants — and one definitely worth exploring. Just how conscious/aware are plants, anyway?
Bee Summit: Experts Discuss the Honeybee’s Dilemma
Text by Carolyn Crane
Photos by Tony Finnerty
Nevada City, California
Last January 16th , about a hundred people filled the meeting room in City Hall to participate in an activist workshop about the honeybee. The workshop, one of several at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, featured five regional bee experts, including Randy Oliver. Oliver has achieved international recognition for his scientific approach to beekeeping. His specialty is to apply current scientific research to bee health problems, he says. He is “currently running his second FDA trial for a bee medicine here in Nevada County.”
Bee enthusiasts anticipate the activist workshop at City Hall.
That same weekend, Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? screened at Wild and Scenic. This 2010 documentary canvasses the planet in search of answers to the widespread disappearance of bees. Featured prominently in the film is Midwestern beekeeper Gunther Hauk, whose life work with bees led him to create the Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary, an organization in Virginia that blends biodynamic farming with Waldorf education. For Hauk, the fate of bees and the fate of humans are so intertwined that “we could call it Colony Collapse Disorder of the human being, too.” Indeed, the two species may be irrevocably linked, since a significant percentage* of the food we consume, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and oils, depends on the honeybee’s pollination for its survival.
Beekeepers often become poetic when discussing their passion. Queen of the Sun introduces many beekeepers who are, quite simply, in love with their bees. When beekeepers spoke at City Hall, their reverence for the bees was as evident as it is in the film. What is it about bees and people? In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan considers this question as he discusses the tulip and its pollinators, the bumble and honey bees. He quotes the poet and critic Frederick Turner: “ ‘The colors and shapes of the flowers are a precise record of what bees find attractive.’” It’s unusual, says Pollan, for insects and humans to have the same aesthetic sense. Flies, for instance, also key pollinators, are attracted to smells and sights that humans find repugnant. It may be that shared aesthetic that bonds us with the bees.
The slide shows Randy Oliver with his bees in Nevada County. To the right, Randy Oliver discussing Colony Collapse Disorder.
Randy Oliver seems different from most beekeepers. “I’m a scientist,” he says emphatically, and mentions that at times his conclusions can rankle those with less scientific approaches. What are Oliver’s hypotheses about what has come to be known as CCD? They are varied and cautious, and more or less in line with the theories posed in Queen of the Sun. What most people who study bees agree on is this: several factors are involved. We’ll look at the four principal factors, the first occurring about one hundred miles from here.
Factor #1: “The Bee Bordello”
Each spring, a significant percentage ** of the bees in the United States travel by truck to the California’s Central Valley to pollinate the blossoming almond orchards. “Without the almond growers and the high price we would never have survived,” commercial beekeeper Eric Olson stated in Queen of the Sun. Because of this mass migration, bees from all over the country converge, in effect climbing in bed together for a month of big fun. Michael Pollan, quoting a beekeeper, calls this the “bee bordello”. Oliver agrees, pointing out that any virus or mite a bee may bring from a certain region will immediately be spread to other regions when the bees return home. Add to the bordello factor the stress of travel and you get, in a manner of speaking, exhausted bees with scabies and STDs.
Randy Oliver illustrates the mass migration of honeybees to the Central Valley each February. Oliver takes his own bees there each year.
Factor #2: Monoculture
Why can’t the bees just live in the almond orchards all year? The answer is a one-word problem for bees: monoculture. Nearly a hundred years ago, Rudolph Steiner warned us that with increased mechanization and industrialization of agriculture would come the collapse of the beehive by the end of the 20th century. When a farmer plants only one crop, such as almonds or canola, the bees have nothing to eat once those blossoms die. A monoculture creates a desert for bees. “From the point of view of nature, it’s insane,” Michael Pollan says in Queen of the Sun. “Monoculture is the original sin of agriculture.”
Three of the five panelists: Randy Oliver, Serge Labesque, and Kathy Kellison
Kathy Kellison is trying to do something about that. One of the five featured bee experts at City Hall that day, she’s founded Partners for Sustainable Pollination, which “collaborates with beekeepers, growers, and scientists to improve the health of honeybees and support native pollinators.” The organization’s Bee Friendly Farming campaign “educates consumers and encourages support for needed land management practices for healthy honey bees and thriving populations of native pollinators.” Kellison and others are calling on farmers to set aside at least 6% of their land and plant bee forage, creating a polyculture that will allow the land to sustain the bees and other insect species. However, some farmers are reluctant to reduce profits by removing a percentage of their market crop. The issue then turns down the political road of subsidies and lobbyists. In its role as an NGO, Kellison is hopeful that PFSP will make progress on that front.
Factor #3: Parasites
Parasites and bees have coexisted in the past, but in 1993 the varroa mite emerged on the scene and changed the face of beekeeping completely. The mite attaches to the bee in the hive, sucking its blood. According to Oliver, the varroa mite “is still by far the most serious problem to beekeeping in the U.S. and in Europe.” Beekeepers have experimented with many strategies in order to control the varroa mite. Local beekeeper Janet Brisson invented a special bottom screen for beehives that traps the varroa mite after powered sugar, sprinkled into the hive, forces the mite to leave the bee. This bottom board is used across the country. Recipes for organic compounds and home remedies are easily available on the Internet.
Nevada County’s Janet Brisson, inventor of the screen bottom board. With her, from left to right, fellow panelists Gary McClaughry, Randy Oliver, and Serge Labesque.
In Queen of the Sun, U.S. beekeeper Kirk Webster explains the problem of using chemicals to kill the mites: We are “breeding mites that adapt to every chemical,” he explains. One chemical, “formerly a deadly poison, [became] a resource” as the mites adapted to it. David Heaf, a Welsh biochemist turned beekeeper, is experimenting with allowing the varroa mite and the bee to “fight it out” in the hive. He feels beekeepers must get off the “treadmill of putting chemicals in hives”. Co-evolution between honeybee and mite, he believes, is the optimal outcome at this point. Oliver agrees, and has been selecting bees that exhibit mite resistance for eleven years. “There are quite a few beekeepers these days whose bees coexist with varroa without significant mortality,” he says. Beekeepers agree that if the bees are healthy, they might withstand the stress of the varroa mite. Other factors weaken the bee and make the parasite more deadly.
Randy Oliver shares a photograph of a honeybee and its varroa mites.
Factor #4: Herbicides and Pesticides
We don’t yet know the full extent of the effect of herbicides and pesticides on the honeybee. The proliferation of Monsanto’s genetically modified crops and their companion herbicide, Roundup, has altered a vast percentage of the honeybee’s landscape. This is because Roundup kills every plant but the genetically modified crop that is being grown, eliminating any forage for the honeybees once the crop has completed its bloom.
According to panelist Serge Labesque, the canola blossom is nearly the perfect food for the honeybee. In the film Percy Schmeiser: David versus Monsanto, we learn about the relationship between herbicides and genetically modified canola. Schmeiser states that Monsanto promised three things to the Canadian canola farmer in the mid 1990s: If they signed a contract with Monsanto and grew its genetically modified seed, they would always get a bigger yield, that yield would be more nutritious, and they would need to use fewer chemicals to produce it. “We found out the total opposite happened. We are now using more chemicals then ever before, and more powerful and more toxic chemicals.” According to the film, “even the Canadian government admits that GM canola is everywhere.” Despite this, Oliver says, “Canadian honeybees are thriving on GM canola. It has been quite a few years, and they don’t appear to have any problems.”
Experts disagree on the direct effect genetically modified plants have on the honeybee. In Queen of the Sun, Dr. Vandana Shiva and others offer scientific theory to support a direct causation. However, Randy Oliver turns to “independent scientific reports from a variety of sources”, and is emphatic that there is no scientific evidence to directly link genetic crop modification to CCD. What’s not in question, he says, is the effect of certain pesticides on the health of hives.
Ana Sofia Joanes, filmmaker and activist, is among those mounting a campaign against a pesticide used widely in the United States: clothianidin. In a recent email, Joanes states that the producer of the chemical is Bayer Crop Science, a German company: “This isn’t your usual pesticide—it’s applied to the seeds of plants themselves. It remains in the plant as it grows, and comes out through the plant’s pollen and nectar….The poison attacks the nervous system of bees and other insects, killing them off while having little effect on other animals. Already France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany have banned this pesticide from use on their crops—and their bee populations have bounced back.”
Randy Oliver does not at this time support a petition drive to ban clothianidin. In fact, he corrects Joanes: “Her statement is untrue. Clothianidin was briefly withdrawn form Germany, then reinstated when demonstrated to be safe. It is also currently registered in France and Italy.” He refers to the chemical as a neurotoxin, but says there is as of now insufficient science to support a U.S. ban. The EPA will not take the issue seriously until there is, he says, so the current grass roots movement headed by Joanes and others is not only a waste of time but damaging to beekeepers’ credibility. Oliver is negotiating with Bayer Crop Science and the EPA to conduct a field test with clothianidin here in Nevada County. The trial is not yet confirmed. If approved, the trial will “determine, without bias, if there are indeed any measureable effects of exposure to clothianidin. The results could support a ban, or put an end to the call for a ban,” he says.
“Colony Collapse Disorder is a bill we are getting for all we have done to the bees,” says Gunther Hauk. Despite the multitude of grave challenges that face the honeybee, that Sunday afternoon City Hall was abuzz with enthusiasm. Many hobby beekeepers were present, and the panel happily agreed—the more hives, the better. The Nevada County Bee Keepers Association provides an active and lively forum for the growing movement here. Queen of the Sun takes us to rooftop beekeepers around the world, and we watch city governments and activists teaching city dwellers that bees are a necessary part of their urban landscape. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan asserts that plants have trained bees and people to care for them. The widespread resurgence of reverence for bees is a hopeful sign that Steiner’s prophecy may be narrowly averted.
* Experts disagree about this percentage. Michael Pollan says that about 40% of our food is pollinated by bees. Randy Oliver states that even 33% might be an exaggeration.
** Experts disagree about this percentage. Director Taggart Siegel reports in Queen of the Sun that 75% of the bees travel to the Central Valley. Randy Oliver says that it is only about half the managed colonies in the United States.
* * * * * * * *
You can follow Randy Oliver’s work at www.scientificbeekeeping.com. Partners for Sustainable Pollination’s website is http://pfspbees.org. You can learn more about Janet Brisson’s screen boards at www.countryrubes.com.
All photographs by Tony Finnerty. All rights reserved, used with permission.
The Quest for Local Honey sponsored the activist workshop at the 2011 Wild and Scenic Film Festival (www.questforlocalhoney.com). Both Queen of the Sun and Percy Schmeiser: David versus Monsanto screened at the festival. If you are a SRYCL member you can borrow copies of these films to view at home. For more information visit www.syrcl.org or www.wildandscenicfilmfestival.org.
Small is good, and what a perfect beauty!
When eating out, if we discover an easy healthy, fabulous dish, there is a valiant attempt to duplicate it. I made this fresh asparagus salad last spring, when the asparagus was just coming up, so easy to get local produce and I made it again, last night. This is the month to buy (local/organic if possible) tender fresh asparagus and this salad is absolutely delicious…………happy to share it.
Joyce Hays, Target Health Inc.
Asparagus Ribbon Salad
Measurements for ingredients, below, should be to your taste, so, the amounts given are approximations
¼ to ½ cup pine nuts (or sliced almonds)
1 pound asparagus, rinsed well (fat stalks are easier to peel)
About ½ fresh lemon
Extra virgin Olive oil
pinch of Kosher or sea salt
Pinch, Fine black pepper or freshly ground
1 to 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Make this salad just before you plan to eat it.
At 350 degrees (oven), toast the pine nuts. You don’t need to use any oil if you stir them constantly until they’re a nice light brown, about 7 to 10 minutes. You need to toast them, because the flavor is much better when toasted
Keep the tough ends of the fresh asparagus so you can hold each piece easily when peeling the ribbons.
On a board, take each asparagus stalk and holding the end that you won’t be using, peel it from bottom to the tip, until you have peeled all the ribbons you can from each stalk. If some ribbons still have the tip on the end, keep the tips on, because they add to the colorful “look” of the salad.
Put all of the asparagus ribbons into a salad bowl and squeeze the fresh lemon and olive oil over the green ribbons. Add salt and pepper the way you like it. Add the parmesan and toss very slowly getting the cheese distributed evenly.
Now add the toasted pine nuts and toss again very slowly until the nuts are spread throughout the salad.
Eat immediately with warm Italian bread. This is a marvelous salad to have with a light fish (or scallops & shrimp) like Pacific Halibut (this is the only sustainable Halibut available now), or Atlantic Dorado (only sustainable Mahi-Mahi now), Striped Bass and a nice white wine. At the moment we are very happy with Italian-type Chardonnay and the delicious Orvieto iced in the freezer ahead of time
PS: If you’re a garlic lover, consider squeezing the juice of one (to your taste) garlic clove, at the time you add the lemon and olive oil
To determine what sustainable fish to buy, check out this list from Monterey Bay Aquarium, a wonderful source for everyone