Sorry, Vegans: Scientists Say That Plants Can Feel Stress

New research from the University of Copenhagen claims that plants experience stress when growing in the cold.

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Jun 20 2016, 12:00pm

We're constantly being told how much better the world would be if we ditched the chicken wings and triple-decker beef burgers for a veggie way of life.

But next time your vegan friend embarks on a graphic retelling of Food, Inc. when you're midway through a ham sandwich, here's something to whip out and wipe the smile off their smug, salad-munching face. New research published last Friday from the University of Copenhagen claims that plants experience stress when growing in the cold.

Yes, that's right. Your kale smoothie may have come at the expense of a poor, strung-out plant.

READ MORE: We Asked a Biologist If Plants Can Feel Pain

Published in the Journal of Pineal Research, the study saw researchers apply melatonin, the hormone that controls sleeping and waking patterns in humans, to barley plants via leaf absorption and the soil surrounding the plants' roots. They then monitored the effect this had on abscisic acid (ABA) levels, the plant hormone which "plays an important part in responses to environmental stress, as it for example slows plant growth to protect it from the cold conditions in the winter."

The results showed that melatonin acts as a chill pill for stressed-out barley. The study read: "Exogenously applied melatonin resulted in higher ABA concentration in the drought-primed plants than in the non-primed plants when exposure to cold stress [...] The interplay of melatonin and ABA leads to plants maintaining better water status."

The Copenhagen researchers aren't the first to explore the extent to which plants are aware of their environment and their reactions to external factors. Even Hollywood is getting in on the action, with an upcoming kids' film—worryingly titled Sausage Party—set to explore the horror sentient veg experience when being peeled, boiled, and eaten.

READ MORE: Robots May Save California's Wine Industry From the Drought

As the film industry creates yet more reasons for kids not to eat their veg, the researchers from Copenhagen hope that their findings on plant stress will help control crops in extreme climates. Xiangnan Li and Fulai Liu, crop physiologists and co-authors of the study, said in a press release that "regulating melatonin production in plants via drought priming could be a promising approach to enhancing abiotic stress tolerance of crops in future climate scenarios."

So, next time your meat-free mate starts harping on about cauliflower rice, remind them of the hard life that shivering, left-in-the-cold-ground brassica has endured. And don't forget the smug smile.