Switzerland: Don't Hurt Veggies' Feelings

Saturday, 11 Oct 2008 02:45 PM

By Phil Brennan

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Wheat and all plant life has feelings and researchers must take veggie’s tender emotions into account when tinkering around with their genes, the Swiss government has ruled.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s Gautam Naik, last spring under an amendment to the constitution, Switzerland began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant's alleged dignity.

"Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously," Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich told the Journal. Keller who recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus added, "It's one more constraint on doing genetic research."

Keller said he found himself having to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. He then had to explain why his planned trial wouldn't "disturb the vital functions or lifestyle" of the plants. Eventually he got the green light to go ahead with his research.

According to the Journal, the Swiss constitution was amended back in the 1990s -- in order to defend the dignity of all creatures, including the leafy kind, against unwanted consequences of genetic manipulation. When the amendment was turned into a law -- known as the Gene Technology Act -- it didn't say anything specific about plants.

The excursion into the psychology of plants began with a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians assembled to establish the meaning of the dignity of plants.

"We couldn't start laughing and tell the government we're not going to do anything about it," an amused Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel told the Journal . He explained, "The constitution requires it."

Last April the Journal reported the group published a 22-page treatise on "the moral consideration of plants for their own sake." They ruled that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by "decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason," for example.

It also declared 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, the Journal explained “It's wrong to genetically alter a plant and render it sterile.”

While many scientists believe the dignity rule applies mainly to field trials such as Dr. Keller's, some worry it may one day apply to lab studies as well.

The new rules raise such questions as what is a more mortifying fate for a carrot than being peeled, chopped and dropped into boiling water? Do carrots scream as lobsters are said (falsely) to do when being thrown unceremoniously into a pot and boiled alive?

"Where does it stop?" Yves Poirier, a molecular biologist at the laboratory of plant biotechnology at the University of Lausanne asked the Journal. “Should we now defend the dignity of microbes and viruses?"

Seeking clarity, Dr. Poirier recently invited the head of the Swiss ethics panel to his university. In their public discussion, Dr. Poirier said the new rules are flawed because decades of traditional plant breeding had led to widely available sterile fruit, such as seedless grapes. The discussion turned squirrely when it became obvious that some panel members believe plants have feelings, Dr. Poirier told the Journal.

The Ethics Committee on Non Human Gene Technology and the Swiss Committee on Animals Experiments have created brochures with the goal of defining the dignity of plants and animals. It was not clear if weeds are now a constitutionally protected endangered species.

Left unanswered was the question: Does this new development open the door to a brand new profession -- plant psychology with potato patients prone on a plant shrink’s couch, expressing fears their dignity might be violated by being peeled, mashed and drowned in hot gravy?

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