Sex in the Flower Beds

Busy Bee: But the flower is even busier

The pervasive lack of interest in plant biology is evident from minimal coverage in school biology through to government policy decisions. How can it be that biomedical research is VAT-exempt, but plant science research is not? Plants are at the foundation of virtually every ecosystem and agricultural system, making them fundamental to the health and wellbeing of both people and the biosphere. So why don’t people give a fig?

There are two main reasons for plant-related apathy. The first is that plants don’t move. We are extraordinarily interested in things that move. Lack of movement means lack of activity, and more than that, lack of any kind of engagement with the world. Plants don’t move, and so people think they don’t do anything. 

From this come expressions like “couch potato”, in which lack of movement is linked directly to insensibility and to plants. In contrast, anything that moves under its own steam is afforded all kinds of high-order cognitive abilities, even if it most certainly doesn’t have any. When it comes to even the humblest of motile creatures, we are happy to anthropomorphise well beyond reason. These creatures are actively doing things, and what is more, the things they are doing are things that we recognise, and with which we empathise. This is the second reason that plants attract so little of our attention.

Consider a sunny afternoon in your garden. You have a cup of tea and a slice of cake. You are sitting on a bench listening to Radio 3. Your attention is caught by a bee, moving in your herbaceous border. The bee moves from flower to flower, performing impressive acrobatic feats to wriggle its way into each one. It’s a busy bee. It’s working hard to collect the things it needs. You understand what it wants, and its diligent labours contrast with your own leisurely plans for the afternoon. If you had a particularly work-ethic-damaged upbringing, you might even feel guilty about the disparity in ambition between yourself and the bee. The bee is happy to work harder for its unscrupulous queen, while you lounge about with Mozart. All this from a bee. And all this an entirely biologically inaccurate reflection of the situation — it is the herbaceous boarder that is the main protagonist in the story.

All the energy in the bee-plant interaction comes from the plant. The plant has invested in producing a showy flower attractive to bees. The flower advertises a massive sugar bribe, made available to the bee in exchange for transferring pollen to the next flower. Put bluntly, the plant is paying the bee to assist it in having sex with a neighbouring plant. This is very impressive, but we give the plant no credit for negotiating this transaction, because we have no empathy for it. If we want sex with someone, we generally do not bribe a passer-by to carry our gametes across to our chosen mate. The plant doesn’t look as though it’s doing anything, and what it is doing is totally alien to us. So we ignore the plant and instead start planning trade union representation for the bee.

So plants are ignored, but why does this matter? It matters because over-humanising animals and under-humanising plants causes all kinds of problems. A particularly important case in point is in food and farming. I think it likely that many ideas about animal welfare are based on false assumptions that animals want what we want, rather than evidence about what they want. Many popular ideas about the best way to grow crops involve little consideration of plant biology. There is now an obsession with naturalness in food, with a deeply-held assumption that if it’s natural it must be good. It is intuitively obvious to people that vegetables that have not been sprayed with artificial chemicals must be more health-giving than those that have. “It stands to reason,” people say. But it precisely doesn’t stand to reason. As soon as reason is brought to bear, the whole proposition looks extremely shaky. 

Think about it from the plant’s point of view. Think like a real, non-couch, potato. A potato is a food store for next year’s potato plant. It remains in the soil over winter and the next year, fuels the growth of the plant. This is a very dangerous strategy — to leave a source of food sitting in the soil over winter when animals are hungry. So potatoes are heavily defended, laced with various types of chemicals to ward off all-comers. The world’s deadliest toxins are natural chemicals. Just because there are no artificial chemicals on a plant does not mean it is not stuffed full of natural but lethal chemicals. During plant crop domestication, we have bred some of these out, and we deal with many others by cooking and processing our food. Raw potatoes are bad for you for a reason. And this is the general point. Except when handing out bribes, plants don’t want to be eaten. Natural plants are tough, indigestible and full of toxic chemicals. The closer a plant is to nature, the more likely it is to be bad for you. This obvious point is almost entirely ignored because no one thinks about plant biology.

At this point, the natural-is-good lobby patiently explains that we have evolved eating plants, so through natural selection, we are adapted to eat them, so they are definitely the very best thing for us to eat, natural selection being the great optimiser. Here again, this argument completely ignores any consideration of the potato’s view. Natural selection is also acting on the plant, so for every evolutionary innovation allowing an animal to overcome a plant defence, there is counter-selection for a new defence in the plant. It’s a balance, with the plant being eaten more than it would like, and the animal being damaged more than it would like. It is an evolutionary arms race. Ten thousand years ago, we had the brilliant idea of agriculture-enforced unilateral disarmament of plants by people. It’s not at all natural, but the result is healthier food. Natural agriculture is an oxymoron.

Agriculture has changed everything for people and for the planet. Now both are in crisis, triggered by over-population, climate change, and water, food and fuel insecurity. Agriculture and plants are central to providing solutions. It’s easy to argue that because people have driven ever more intensive agriculture, and this has been a major cause of these problems, the solution must be less intensive agriculture, with less intervention from people — leave it to nature, not science. This is woolly thinking, legitimising an abrogation of responsibility with a call to do less. To tackle these massive challenges, we need active intervention and the kind of ingenuity shown by the first farmers 10,000 years ago. We need to understand plants and, through understanding, learn how to make the most of them.

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