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Help! Vegies still alive on plate

I’m disturbed to find that fruit and vegies* are alive when I eat them. Not jumping up and down. But biochemically active – sensing their environment and making compounds in response.

Until now I thought that life stopped the moment I yanked a carrot out of the ground. Dead, final, kaput.

Not any more.

What do you call a person who eats something that’s still alive? I, apparently, am one of those people.

According to a US study published in the journal Current Biology, fruit and vegies keep on going after we pick them because they have so many parts – leaves and branches, roots and fruits – all acting more or less independently.

Somehow this means their cells stay alive even after what I’d assumed was death, making chemicals to protect themselves from insects or herbivores, the same chemicals that affect their taste and perhaps how good they are for us.

Light drives this never-say-die attitude. It guides their circadian clock to produce chemicals at certain times of day, even after we pick them.

Cabbages, lettuce, spinach, zucchini, sweet potatoes, carrots and blueberries all perform the same party trick.

What now?

The researchers think their findings might affect when we pick our fruit and vegies, how we store them and when we eat them.

That’s all very sensible, but

there are only so many things I can control in my life. Picking carrots at 3pm won’t ever make it to my “to do” list.

I’d sit up and listen, though, if we needed new fridges. Rather than the light going off the moment we shut the door, we’d have to re-engineer our fridges to flick the light on and off. It’d be like a vegie dance party.

Conscious carrots?

Let’s move on from the practical to the philosophical. This notion of fruit and vegies being alive after picking has implications for if and when we think plants are conscious.

I wrote only recently about philosopher professor Michael Marder and his argument for a basic definition of consciousness – deriving nutrients, responding to the environment, reproducing – that means plants could be considered conscious.

If we accept that fruit and vegies are alive for longer than we think, this could extend the window of when plants might be conscious.

Fruit and vegies may still be conscious when we pick them, and if we eat them raw, still conscious when we pop them in our mouths.

I find all this hard to digest. I never thought of myself as a plant murderer.

* ‘Vegie’ is the Macquarie Dictionary preferred spelling in Australia and not ‘veggie’, which is used in the US and UK.

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