Are we morally obligated to appreciate plants for their own sake, regardless of what they do for us? Yes, says Florianne Koechlin, one of the members of The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) that — in 2008 — ruled that, legally, plants have dignity.
In a talk at TEDxZurich, the chemist and writer describes why plants are so special, and what it is we often overlook about them. Plants are not passive organisms, Koechlin says; rather, they form memories, send warnings, attack predators, and pick up on signals from their environment. They communicate with other plants. They alter their behavior based on past experiences.
For example: “[A tomato plant] communicates with fragrances,” Koechlin explains. “When a caterpillar attacks a leaf, the plant starts to produce leaf toxins and, at the same time, releases a cloud of fragrance to warn neighboring tomatoes, so they too can start with their defense … not only [does] the tomato know that she is being attacked, but also exactly who is attacking her. If she is attacked by spider mites, she produces a fragrance cocktail that attracts predatory mites that eat spider mites, but if she is attacked by caterpillars, she produces a slightly different cocktail of fragrances to attract parasitic wasps.”
Tomato plants detect their predators through the taste of the insects’ saliva, Koechlin says. Other plants use similar defense techniques; apple trees send out scents attractive to moth-eating birds when they detect a caterpillar invasion. “[Plants] can perceive about 20 environmental signals. Like humans they can react to smell, taste, touch, sight and sound, and like birds they sense electromagnetic waves,” Koechlin says.
Underground, plants create symbiotic networks of root systems to share nutrients as well as information, Koechlin says. She calls this a “dynamic underground marketplace” for plants, or a world wood web, where “plants with long roots contribute water, other ones nitrogen or phosphate or sugar compounds” and information is passed between plants.
“Plants communicate; engage in lively relationships with their peers and environment; harass one another; build alliances; remember; learn; and some scientists even think they are intelligent,” Koechlin says. However, despite more and more information on the complexity of plants, most of us see them as passive automatons, Koechlin says. This presents a challenge, she says: “The more our image of the plant is turned upside down, [the more we have to ask]: What are the implications of these new insights?”
Koechlin thinks there are (at least) two. One — to use our growing library of knowledge of plant behavior to improve our relationship with plants, agriculturally and otherwise. Why not use our understanding of plant life to help plants boost their immune systems, lure beneficial insects to fields, and so on? Two — to philosophically examine the value of plants as plants, rather than objects for human use.
To learn more, watch Koechlin’s whole talk below: