From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine
In the fanciful Roald Dahl story, “The Sound Machine,” a man invents a device that can modify the sounds made by plants to a bandwidth that humans can hear. Listening through it, he learns that his neighbor’s rosebushes shriek each time she cuts a blossom. A tree incised with an ax gives a long moan.
Or maybe not so fanciful after all. Plants lack neurons and a brain, so they cannot feel pain as we generally define it. But recent experiments have shown that, contrary to what had been previously thought, plants give off electric signals when they are exposed to burning, and produce dopamine and other neurotransmitters. A plant that normally responds to touch by curling its leaves stops doing that when exposed to ether, a drug that interferes with nerve transmission—a puzzling result for an organism without a nervous system as we know it.
And with this information in hand, we arrive at Level 4 of humane eating styles. Beyond conscientious omnivorism—the consumption of meat in limited amounts and from humanely-raised animals–vegetarianism and veganism, a small but passionate group of people practice fruitarianism, which is more or less exactly as it sounds. Like any deep-seated belief, it has various splinter groups. Some eat almost solely fruit of any kind; others will add nuts, seeds or beans. Many follow it for health reasons, in the belief that it imbues people with energy and can cure ailments.
Yet others will eat only fruits that have fallen to the ground, believing that in this way they abstain from two forms of violence. The first is toward the plant itself: If a tree feels any discomfort from the falling of an apple, at least the trauma wasn’t caused by humans and wasn’t premature, whereas pulling a cabbage from the ground kills the plant, or cutting leaves from a kale plant might injure the plant itself. As Hugh Grant remarked to his fruitarian dinner date in the movie Notting Hill: “So, these carrots have been murdered?”
The other purported kindness is toward the planet, by not interfering with what would have happened to the plants naturally. That’s why many frugivores won’t eat seeds, which left to the ground might become new plants—though that complicates any efforts to eat strawberries, kiwis or similar fruits.
Many fruitarians say this is the original way people ate, before the hunter-gatherers went all paleo. The annual Woodstock Fruit Festival draws several hundred adherents who communalize their diet over the course of a week, as well as joining drum circles, hugging workshops and therapeutic flying sessions. Leonardo da Vinci may have been a fruitarian; Steve Jobs definitely was in his younger years. Most recently, and perhaps most famously, actor Ashton Kutcher became seriously ill prepping for his role as Jobs by trying out the fruitarian diet for a few weeks.
There’s not much research on the health benefits or disadvantages of this way of eating, but you’re certainly not going to find mainstream dieticians who approve. Fresh raw fruits are healthy foods, but they offer inadequate protein, nutritionists say, and are likely to leave their followers short on calcium and some crucial vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. That’s why many fruitarians watch their bloods carefully and take in minimal amounts of other kinds of foods.
Of course, the concept of non-interference with nature by eating fallen fruit is fraught with its own contradictions. Unless frugivores wander the forests picking up fruit, their food comes to them from farms where the trees and vines aren’t just growing on their own. The growing of plants for fruit almost always involves the clearing of land, destroying whatever plants grew there naturally, along with the ongoing killing of weeds, which are the planet’s plants as well. Fruit itself is a markedly different food than what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, selectively bred over the past 12,000 years or so to be larger and more palatable. But at least, as best we know, we’re not harming the parent plant when we eat the offspring it casts to the ground. | Karin Klein