Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Most Brutal Industry on Earth

We use in our modern lives a number of products derived from animals, dead or living.  Many animal products, such as meat and leather, require the death of the animal for their collection.  This death is inherently violent, however our society attempts to take every step necessary to slaughter the animal in a way that is as close to quick and painless as death can be (although it can certainly be argued that this is not the case in the modern meat industry).  Other animal products are harvested from the animal while it is still living.  Sometimes this causes the animal only minimal discomfort, such as the shearing of a sheep for wool.  In the case of some products derived from living animals, such as the collection of bile from asiatic moon bears in China, little is done to mitigate pain.  

However, there is one industry that is so ruthlessly barbaric in its production methods that it would surely make any activist for the rights of non-human creatures, that was aware of its existence, lose countless hours of sleep at night.  The creature involved in the production of this product is allowed to grow unharmed until around its second or third decade of existence.  When it is deemed ready for harvest, the worker tears into its flesh with an axe, peeling away the outer layers of its body while it can only passively endure the experience.  In an excruciating process, the flesh is removed from the lower portions of the creature until it stands exposed.  When the flesh heals after a decade or so, it is once again stripped from its body.  This process is repeated until the creature can bear no more and passes.  

A rare glimpse into the hellish world of this industry.

The creature in question is Quercus suber, the cork oak, a medium sized, evergreen oak tree native to Southern Europe and Northern Africa.  Its flesh, or more precisely the cork cambium, an anatomical feature analogous to the deeper regions of our skin, is processed into the stoppers used to seal and preserve bottles of wine and other beverages.  Countries such as Portugal, Spain, and Tunisia are proud of their cork industries, lauding it as "environmentally sustainable" while simultaneously denying its brutal reality.

Surely, the cork oak is nothing but a plant and not experience even a modicum of the torture a battery bear undergoes during its harsh existence, right?  Plants, after all, appear to completely lack a nervous system, and therefore cannot consciously perceive their internal or external environment.  Current botanical knowledge would have you believe that these trees undergo no pain during the harvest, but how can we really be sure of this?  

Plants display a remarkable diversity of responses to environmental stimuli.  Dionaea muscipula, the venus fly trap, is able to sense the presence of prey through small hair-like structures called trichomes and rapidly close the terminal lobes of its leaf to capture and digest its victim.  The plant root zone, or rhizosphere, is an area of vast amounts of chemical communication.  Through root exudates, certain fungi and bacteria can be enticed to undertake a symbiotic existence within the plant.  Some, such as mycologist Paul Stamets, have remarked that the interconnected systems of plant root and mycorrhizal hyphae exhibit a neuronal character.  Indeed, the word neuron is derived from the Greek word for vegetable fiber.  Furthermore, while it is now evident that solitary plants can sense and respond to their environment, increasing evidence of communication between plants is coming to light.  For example, some plants when attacked by an herbivore can release volatile chemicals to caution their neighbors to be prepared.

Some have even posited that plants display elements of a rudimentary consciousness.  Cleve Backster, an interrogation and polygraph specialist, through his work in the 1960s put forth the theory of "primary perception".  Backster noticed that when he connected his Draecena sp. house plant to a polygraph machine, he was able to elicit a response when the plant was harmed and even when he thought about harming the plant in its vicinity.  In one experiment, a machine was built to automatically drop brine shrimp into boiling water in the vicinity of a plant connected to a polygraph.  The moment the creatures met their fate an electrical reaction in the plant was recorded on the polygraph.  He was later able to expand his work to show similar responses to cultured bacterial and human cells and other preparations of living creatures including yogurt.  

Backster's Draecena sp. plant celebrating its birthday, this time surely displaying positive emotive responses. Source

While Backster's work was largely rejected by the scientific community as pseudoscience, there is certainly a growing evidence that plants, and indeed many other non-human organisms, display a surprising amount of awareness and ability to react to and modify their environment.  While the "pain" experienced by a plant may not be on the same level or even of the same quality as that experienced by a human or another sentient animal, plants are certainly more reactive to their internal and external environment than, for example, a rock.  We may currently consider something such as the cork industry to cause no pain to its constituent producers, however this only our perception of our actions and may not reflect reality.  In the future, it may very well come to light that we have been violently inflicting unimaginable pain on these hapless creatures.  An industry that required the systematic and repeated skinning of a live animal would by no means be allowed to exist in our society (although animals are skinned alive in some other cultures, such as in some Chinese fur farms) yet an analogous action performed on a plant is not given a second thought.


  1. This was an interesting article that brought to light some intriguing scientific stats about plants. However, calling it "The Most Brutal Industry on Earth " seems like the overstatement of the year. I work for a coal mining company and go underground frequently. The stories some of those miners, frankly they put the cork oak getting 'skinned' to shame. Just recently a miner with 35 years experience was trapped, pinned under a RAM car, and the dragged to the face, dismembering him for all his unit to see. Obviously you put a disclaimer in your post but I just feel that because it deals with an oak tree and not humans, it isn't the "The Most Brutal Industry on Earth".

  2. This post reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode where the protagonist develops a machine that translates plant "language". When he first tests the machine in his backyard, he hears terrible screams originating from his neighbor’s garden. When he rushes to check on her, he finds her to be perfectly fine and collecting flowers. The blood curdling screams were coming from her decapitated petunias!

    I enjoyed the idea behind Stephen’s post: violence is a matter of perspective. Some people limit their sensitivities to humans, others to vertebrates, and the most extreme to anything that may be “alive”. Unfortunately, a few mix up their empathetic priorities. You may have heard of an organization named PETA that stands for animal rights and protests against animal cruelty. Though most sane human beings are opposed to animal cruelty, PETA often takes the position of holding animals above people in their protests. Many members have honestly prefered rescuing the dog in the “save the dog or the child from a burning building” scenario. In their eyes, violence towards humans is lesser than towards animals as their dehumanizing advertisements reveal. For their misanthropic opinions and general hypocrisy, the organization has received much criticism:

    If Stephen honestly feels offended by cruelty to plants, I would make sure to stay off the grass in his company, lest I incur his wrath. That doesn’t mean I would shed a tear for crushing a blade of grass.

  3. It seems Poe's Law does apply here as I thought it was evident that my post was hyperbole. I meant for this to sound like a PETA post about plants. I don't believe that plants experience pain, at least not in the way animals with nervous systems do. I fully support the cork industry over their synthetic competitors, as well as similar perennial cropping systems for woody products (such as pollarding or coppicing) which are conceivably "cruel" in the same way.

    I meant to examine the idea that violence is only violence when performed on certain objects. Swinging an axe into a person would certainly be considered violent, yet attacking a tree in the same manor is not violent, or at least is a different kind of violent. The action of swinging the axe is not inherently violent; the quality of violence is contingent on the object receiving the action. The herbivore is generally seen as a peaceful beast and the carnivore violent; however both obtain their nutrition through the destructive transformation of the tissues of other organisms.

    I understand that coal mining is a dangerous occupation, but I would not say it is violent. The industry itself does not necessitate those things to happen to its workers. Rather, they are indirect consequences of the activities required by the job, or more likely of administrative decisions that affect workplace safety.

  4. Good clarification; I also mistook this parody as an absurd but genuine article. However, what I really want to comment on is the image of PETA. For some reason, people really, really like to hate on PETA, and I've never understood why. Even the articles linked here, although they make PETA sound like trash when you only read the headlines, are actually demonstrative of PETA's consistent worldview, which doesn't put human rights below animal rights. In both cases, the quotes taken from the PETA representatives are pretty logical and consistent, if nothing else. On the human leather issue, although I have no doubt that most of the customers are rich creeps, PETA's stance is that taking human flesh, when it is donated willingly by the owner and taken after their natural death, isn't a crime. Science has long made use of donated human cadavers to suit its needs and nobody makes a fuss about that, so why should PETA reject what is essentially the same thing only commercialized?

    The issue about PETA's euthanasia rates also reveals that PETA is essentially sane, once you read what they have to say about it. For one, they only accept animals that have already gone through other sources and are proven to be nearly unadoptable, so the statistics are skewed. Secondly, in terms of wild pet overpopulation, they chose to spend more money on working to reduce breeding than they do on housing unadoptable pets in shelters because no amount of money can actually build a good home for the animals, but reducing breeding can actually make a difference to overpopulation problems. When they do euthanize, it is only when the animal has no chance of having a happy life. This actually demonstrates that PETA is sane; they're willing to make rational assessments and they don't treat the death of animals as seriously as they do humans.

    I'm not a wild PETA supporter or anything, I'm just concerned when valid worldviews are dismissed as insane based off of misinformation and untruths.

  5. I guess the articles are not the most representative of PETA's obscene and hypocritical campaigns. The following website sums up the criticism PETA faces:

    PETA haters are generally critical of the animal rights group's extreme protests and publishing. For example, the organization published a violent comic book for kids that attempts to teach vegetarianism by showing an archetypal mother brutally slaughtering a 'poor defenseless rabbit'. Blood soaks the panels as a maniacal mom grins like a monster. The comic entitled “Your Mommy Kills Animals!” is along the same lines as Stephen's post; the key difference is that it is (or was) meant to be taken seriously. Pretty sick stuff to give to our children.

    To be fair, PETA has toned down a bit and shied away from its extremist roots in recent years. A group that once was completely against humans killing healthy animals is now aware that euthanasia is a necessity in animal shelters:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.