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Radio review: Is Eating Plants Wrong? and Sunday Worship

13 January 2023


In Is Eating Plants Wrong? (Radio 4, Friday, repeat), James Wong considered an ethical dilemma

In Is Eating Plants Wrong? (Radio 4, Friday, repeat), James Wong considered an ethical dilemma

BETTERIDGE’s Law states that a headline that asks a rhetorical question can confidently be answered with an emphatic “No.” As a demonstration of its veracity, there is no better instance than James Wong’s documentary Is Eating Plants Wrong? (Radio 4, Friday, repeat). Naturally, your credulous reviewer fell for the enticing bait as easily as a fly drawn to a Venus flytrap; indeed, I can’t think how I avoided it when it was originally broadcast in 2018. The answer, needless to say, was as Betteridge predicts.

The discussion that prompted — if not wholly justified — the provocative title was nevertheless engrossing. Although plants lack a central nervous system, some manifest forms of memory and interaction which enable them to protect themselves and help others in times of adversity. Trees in a forest are connected by vast subterranean networks of roots and fungi: the “Wood-Wide Web”, as one here described it.

Pea seedlings can be tricked by a technique borrowed from the Pavlov’s-dog experiment into growing in a direction other than that which nature would normally dictate. Other plants appear to recognise their closest kin. Whether this can be described as a form of intelligence is a matter of some debate; rather, it might simply reveal a deficiency in our vocabulary of cognition and communication.

And so to the question that hooked us in the first place. In the view of one Professor Michael Marder, the question is whether the whole organism is being needlessly destroyed for our benefit, or whether we merely harvest parts of the plant which can then regrow. According to the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee, plants have a right to be protected against undue harm — into which category might fall the wilful plucking and discarding of wild flowers. But such a view is going to be a hard sell, when even the vegan diners interviewed at either end of the show seemed unimpressed.

Sunday Worship (Radio 4) this week marked Christmas in Ukraine with “The indestructability of hope”, a beautifully curated sequence of prayers, meditation, and music. When those of us who care about religious broadcasting wonder how faith is going to be “done” on the airwaves — and not just described — here was an example of how to manage both in the same programme.

The “doing” was led by the Archbishop-Metropolitan for the Ukrainian Catholic archeparchy of Philadelphia, in the US, the Most Revd Borys Gudziak, with the Dean of Theology at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv, the Revd Dr Yuriy Shchurko. The prayers and the homily were underscored by a generous offering of music, whose exposition was the job of Dr Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian of Ukrainian culture.

Appropriately, the programme reached its climax with a rendition of “Carol of the Bells”, certainly Ukraine’s most famous Christmas piece since a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1922. The choir on that occasion was on tour to raise awareness of the new state of Ukraine, formed after the National War of Independence. History is a tireless rhymester.

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