The dignity of plants

I think this is getting at something important, though perhaps from the wrong angle. I feel like the dignity of plants (and, I think more usefully, that of landscapes and ecosystems) can only have meaning when you approach it with a view towards relationships: creation/creator, creation/cultivator. The relationship, not the plant, is what has or can be denied dignity. Two other notes: I don’t think the “interference with the plant’s ability to reproduce” is a great litmus test in any case, since most domesticated plants have lost the ability to make it without human help (and we with their help). And finally, fittingly, it’s worth remembering that Switzerland was the setting for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, that great and terrible tale of a creator’s failure to love his creature.

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.


Originally published at culture-making.com.

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