Why Plants Aren’t Meaty

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Land-dwelling plants that can nourish themselves still need access to the soil for minerals and trapped water, to the atmosphere for carbon dioxide and oxygen, and to the sun for energy. All of these sources are pretty reliable, and plants have developed an economical structure that takes advantage of this reliability. Roots penetrate the soil to reach stable supplies of water and minerals; leaves maximize their surface area to capture sunlight and exchange gases with the air; and stalks support leaves and connect them with roots. Plants are essentially stationary chemical factories, made up of chambers for carbohydrate synthesis and carbohydrate storage, and tubes to transfer chemicals from one part of the factory to another, with structural reinforcement—also mainly carbohydrates—to provide mechanical rigidity and strength. Parasitic animals, by contrast, must find and feed on other organisms, so they are constructed mainly of muscle proteins that transform chemical energy into physical motion.