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.