Sometime ago, I came across a documentary on plant intelligence which started a train of thought on some of the health issues we face today.
The documentary starts with a study on the sudden deaths of greater kudu antelopes in South Africa’s game reserves in the late 1980s, a period of severe drought. Scientists eventually traced the cause of deaths to the presence of tannin in their gut and identified local acacia trees as the source of the tannin. It was noticed that acacia trees on which the kudus grazed had a higher tannin content as did trees downwind from them. Kudus which grazed downwind were affected and were more prone to dying.
Tannins are toxins that plants develop as a defense mechanism. When a plant is attacked by pests, it generates tannin as a way to ward off or even kill the attacker. Scientists concluded that the tannin that killed the kudus was deliberately produced to dissuade the antelopes from grazing, which the acacia trees saw as a form of attack. Furthermore, the first tree was able to communicate the attack to other trees downwind so that when the kudus reached them, they were ready with the tannin.
In other words, the plants were able to sense an attack and consciously developed a mechanism to stop it. And they communicated this to other plants in their vicinity to help them prepare for the coming attack.
The documentary covers a lot more on how plants react to stimulus in their environments – they respond to music, sleep and wake up, and even have social lives. Clearly plants are far more evolved than we think. They have coexisted long with many other species – symbiotically with some and antagonistically with others – and some have more gene sequences than humans. They can not only sense what is going around them, but are also capable of defending themselves – lethally if need be.
Carrying this thought further, what happens when we cause stress in plants, especially those which we consume? Most modern humans, especially us urban types, think of plants as nothing more than photosynthesis machines and a lower member of the food chain. Many farmers too, view plants as primarily a source of revenue – a thought institutionalized by industrial or factory farming.
Like animals, plants in industrial farms are subject to stresses. Concepts like monoculture, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, frequent transplantation, alien environments and removal of all surrounding organisms – friend or foe – are unnatural practices, something plants in the wild are not used to. It is natural to expect plants to be affected by these practices and eventually react through defense mechanisms. The mechanisms may not just be producing harmful chemicals, but decreasing beneficial ones.
Our question then becomes – do they? A quick search of allergy statistics in the US reveals an interesting trend – food allergy rates are increasing. While allergies are traced to certain foods or individuals, the actual causes are yet to be determined. The rates are higher in developed countries where industrial farming is practiced more and growing faster in countries where industrial farming is a recent development. There is speculation on what could the cause for this increase, but scientists have noticed that non-industrialized societies seem to show a lesser incidence of allergies. Autism, which has been linked to certain chemicals, also shows similar trends. We can add cancer to this list. Some causes of these health issues are well established, but many are still not understood properly.
Effects of industrial farming are felt on other species as well: colony collapse disorder (CCD) in bees is observed more in industrial farming environments. Other insects and birds too are affected, though their declines are more traceable to habitat destruction and loss of sustaining species.
If it is true that our farming methods trigger lethal plant defense mechanisms, it has far reaching consequences for us. All humanity is directly or indirectly dependent on plant life, but our understanding of plants is minimal. Coupled with the force of industrialization, this ignorance could translate to abuse. We are noticing issues around us that could be viewed as reactions to this abuse, given what we have learnt about plant behavior.
What is the solution? A logical first step would be to step away from the industrial farming model we are following today. We need a deeper understanding of life around us and a more humane approach to other species in our surrounding environment. We may see ourselves as the apex predator, but in the end we are as much part of the same ecology system as those species that sustain us and our well-being is dependent on theirs. There are glimmers of hope – farmers are starting to question some of the existing models and explore others. There is also realization among consumers and citizens in general, of the damage we are causing to the environment through adoption of industrial farming, stressing the lives of other species around us. Our challenge is to make them more widespread and mainstream.