I’ve visited Switzerland several times. I’ve always believe the Swiss to be rational, level-headed people. Far more sober than so many Europeans. They’ve managed to preserve both peace and prosperity; they have a tiny national government; they spend most of their time making money rather than plotting how to run other people’s lives or invade other countries. It all sounds good to me.
But it turns out they are crazy. The nation’s constitution protects the dignity of … plants. Uh, right.
For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants?
That’s a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant’s dignity.
“Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously,” Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. “It’s one more constraint on doing genetic research.”
Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn’t “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants. He eventually got the green light.
The rule, based on a constitutional amendment, came into being after the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora’s dignity.
“We couldn’t start laughing and tell the government we’re not going to do anything about it,” says Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel. “The constitution requires it.”
In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on “the moral consideration of plants for their own sake.” It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.”
On the question of genetic modification, most of the panel argued that the dignity of plants could be safeguarded “as long as their independence, i.e., reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured.” In other words: It’s wrong to genetically alter a plant and render it sterile.
Many scientists interpret the dignity rule as applying mainly to field trials like Dr. Keller’s, but some worry it may one day apply to lab studies as well. Another gripe: While Switzerland’s stern laws defend lab animals and now plants from genetic tweaking, similar protections haven’t been granted to snails and drosophila flies, which are commonly used in genetic experiments.
It also begs an obvious, if unrelated question: For a carrot, is there a more mortifying fate than being peeled, chopped and dropped into boiling water?
Sure, let’s treat plans with “dignity.” But my plants tell me that flowers view their highest and best end decorating a nice home. I hear that trees yearn to be turned into fine pieces of furniture. And my sources tell me that lettuce see the pinacle of lettuce-dom being served in a fine salad.
So I say treat plants with dignity. Give them what they want!