Plant lives matter too

I respect and admire all those who protect animals and protest animal cruelty. I also support and have volunteered my time with Physicians for Social Responsibility in Bethesda, MD. This organization successfully campaigned to stop unnecessary animal experimentation in medical research. They also helped stop ridiculous animal testing by manufacturers required by the FDA and other government regulators.

One of the worst crimes against animals that I know of happened while I was in medical training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. One of my professors–a well-known neurosurgeon named Dr. Thomas Langfitt–performed grisly brain surgery experiments on primates. In addition, the monkeys in his care were kept in inhumane and negligent conditions.

Both the school newspaper and the Philadelphia Inquirer covered the scandal. Eventually, the University cleaned up the mess. But amazingly, Dr. Langfitt still went on to a senior position at the University.

I have to say Dr. Langfitt was very kind and considerate with medical students at that time. But his courteous behavior to students in no way should have excused his crimes against the primates in his care. I, for one, never forgot about those crimes.

So, imagine my shock 20 years later when he was elected as volunteer chair of the board at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which has many personal and professional ties with the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, I was the Director of the College at the time. And had been there for seven years.

In just seven years, I had balanced the budget, raised millions of dollars of funding, restored the historic library and national landmark building, and increased our service to the public 20 times over.

Suddenly, Dr. Langfitt came in like a bull in a China shop, or perhaps more like a tyrannical Chinese Emperor. Or even more appropriately in this case, like an 800-pound gorilla. He abruptly and unaccountably abolished, cancelled, and reversed everything we had accomplished to pursue some half-cocked personal vision of a having a “virtual” institution on the internet.

This was just at the time of the internet bust of the early 2000s. Nobody could figure it out, least of all me. But nobody in a position of influence protested either.

I left the College in disgust to direct the Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital down the street in Philadelphia.

Then just a few years later, while serving on the Medical Alumni Executive Committee at Penn, I learned that Langfitt had died of a mysterious illness (at least for the 20th century) called “miliary tuberculosis.” I also learned the College of Physicians was now basing their entire, newly-struggling development campaign on raising funds to honor his memory.

Although Langfitt had been associated with Penn for over a quarter-century–and we at Penn were in the midst of a $4 billion capital campaign–none of us thought of using his name in any way. Perhaps we had keener memories and sensibilities than those who had taken over at the College of Physicians.

Well, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) all quickly learned of Langfitt’s death and the College’s plan to honor his memory.

It turns out that Dr. Langfitt, even posthumously, still occupied a prominent position on PETA’s “Ten Most Wanted List” for cruelty to animals. Of course, PETA persistently protested (as only they can do) the College’s ill-considered fundraising memorial activities and delivered some measure of much-delayed justice. It was not only PETA, but the “Emperor of the College” who turned out to have no clothes.

All this is to say, I come by my concern for the welfare of wildlife and animals honestly and never walked away from a good fight about that topic.

Nevertheless, as a nutritional scientist, I understand that biologically, humans are omnivores. We require both plant and animal products for proper nutrition. Over thousands of years, humans have domesticated animals for sources of companionship, clothing, milk and dairy foods–and yes–meat.

But subsistence should never require cruelty. And most indigenous peoples and traditional farmers who live close to the land understand and respect this principle.

Of course, I understand and respect the ethical choices that lead some people to practice a vegetarian or vegan diet. But they should not be led to believe they are doing it for health reasons. As I reported last year in my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, researchers link strictly plant-based diets with high rates of nutritional deficiencies and insufficiencies.

In other words, vegetarian diets just aren’t as healthy or nourishing.

In addition to the nutritional considerations, it appears we have ethical issues to consider when eating plants. In fact, according to new, thought-provoking research, plants actually know when they are being eaten. And it seems they don’t like it.

Perhaps plants possess their own kind of intelligence and abilities to communicate, as M. Night Shyamalan eerily dramatized in his 2008 movie called “The Happening.” Curiously, the movie is based in Philadelphia.

This new study comes out of the University of Missouri. Researchers found plants can sense when they are being eaten. And they send out defensive mechanisms to try to stop it. For this study, researchers used thale cress, which is closely related to broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and other members of the brassica family. These are all cruciferous or leafy green vegetables.

The Missouri scientists found that thale cress produces mildly toxic mustard oils when a caterpillar begins to eat it.

Of course, the caterpillars that eat these plants turn into butterflies. And humans dramatically reduce their risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases by eating these kinds of vegetables. Indeed, research over the past century consistently shows eating cruciferous and green, leafy vegetables protects against cancer.

Actually, the knowledge that plants produce defensive chemicals is nothing new.

Indeed, we know plants produce many biologically active phytochemicals to protect themselves against microbes, insects and animals. The phytochemicals protect them against predators and help them compete with other plants for soil and living space.

So–if you’re a vegan or vegetarian for ethical reasons, it appears you may have to rethink your stance. Turns out plants have feelings too.

But don’t think too hard on it. If you want to live a long, active, healthy life, you need to follow a diet that includes both plants and animals.

The best we can do is to treat all plant and animal life in Nature with due respect and consideration as we all make our way on life’s journey.


1. “Plants Know When They’re Being Eaten and They Don’t Appreciate it,” Inhabitat ( 10/23/14