Feel the parsnips' pain

Patrick West, a vegetarian, argues that if we concede rights to animals, we must also allow them for

With a construction company forced to pull out of building a vivisection research lab in Oxford, and with Jerry Vlasak, a leading American animal rights campaigner, due to address 300 young militants at a training camp in Kent in September (provided the Home Secretary doesn't ban him), there has never been a better time for animal rights.

But what about vegetable rights? No, don't laugh - and you won't if you have read Samuel Butler's satirical novel Erewhon (1872), which envisaged a world where people had tried to ban eating vegetables as well as animals. Or if you have read Roald Dahl's short story "The Sound Machine" (1949), in which a man invents a device to hear the shrieking of roses being pruned. It is harder than you might think to distinguish between vegetable pain and animal pain.

I write as a vegetarian of eight years' standing. I am concerned about the meat industry, and how we rear animals under cruel conditions for our consumption. Over a lifetime, the average Briton consumes 550 poultry, 36 pigs, 36 sheep and eight oxen. Over the same period, the number of foxes killed by hunting works out at 0.02 per head of human population. Show me a meat-eating anti-vivisectionist, or a carnivorous anti-fox-hunting campaigner, and I'll show you a hypocrite. Animals should not be treated cruelly, but it is nonsense to suggest they should have the same rights as humans.

Bertrand Russell didn't go far enough when he remarked that animal rights mean votes for oysters. By the same criterion, they mean votes for parsnips.

Animal rights supporters argue that, if an organism re- acts negatively to any exterior influence, and seeks to avoid further contact, then it is in pain. "Fish feel pain," it was announced in May. Scientists at the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh had placed electrodes in the brains of trout and made recordings as they poked the fishes' heads. They discovered that the trout brains fired reactive neurones. When acid or bee venom was applied to their lips, the trout rubbed them on the gravel in their tank.

On the same basis, it can be argued that plants also feel pain. They, too, recoil from detrimental sensations. Research by Alan Bown of Brock University in Canada showed that, ten seconds after an insect crawls on to a leaf, the plant secretes a paralysing agent (called gamma aminobutyric acid) that attacks the intruder's nervous system. Bown explained that plants distinguish between harmless contact from raindrops and the action of caterpillar feet. Not only that, but having been attacked by insects, plants repair their wounds by releasing the chemical superoxide, which helps to prevent infection.

This is not new: botanists have known for a long time that plants have defensive mechanisms. But in June 2002, researchers in Bonn found that plants emit ethylene gas when under attack. The scientists also attached microphones to the vegetation and observed that whereas the plants normally emitted a bubbling sound, under attack from insects, they gave off piercing screeches. Scientists at the Baylor University Medical Centre in Dallas have measured the chemical response of plants to being pulled up, peeled, cooked and eaten. The results, said Professor Barry Lindzer, showed that "plants initiate a massive hormone and chemical barrage internally when they suffer any kind of injury". He continued: "This response is akin to the nerve response and endorphin release when an animal is injured. We cannot ignore the similarities." Scientists from Michigan State University say that plants have a rudimentary nerve structure that allows them to feel pain. "The nervous system is undeveloped, but it is there."

Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that we should protect anything whose reactions seem to resemble pain forces us all to become fruitarians, waiting for the proverbial apple to fall from the tree - as people did in Butler's Erewhon before they found they were starving to death.

Talk of "rights" for non-humans debases the great campaigns by women and black people for equal treatment. It was precisely because they were compared to animals - irrational slaves to nature who lacked reason - that they suffered such discrimination.

Human beings have overpopulated the planet, degraded the environment, dropped nuclear bombs and committed genocide. Yet now we fuss about harming goldfish. The philosopher Peter Singer and his acolytes simultaneously campaign for rights for animals and euthanasia for humans. That sums it all up, really.