Field of Science

Does botanical research offend the dignity of plants?

The Swiss ethics committee has declared that plant scientists are not allowed to do research that offends the dignity of plants. This initially struck me as hard to believe because I think of the Swiss as a pretty level-headed and practical people, but this is just goofy.

Maybe this was just a Swiss attempt at humor. But this is for real and my botanical colleagues must deal with this. Now I do think certain plants have a majesty, and they certainly can be violated, for example, by cutting down redwood trees to make somebody a porch deck. But is the dignity of a cabbage offended when it is converted into coleslaw? Does it regain any of its dignity when converted into sauerkraut? Are my prairie plants dignified? Does a fertilizer treatment offend them?

You really have to wonder about what kind of cuckoos are on the Swiss ethics committee because they are guilty of pure anthropomorphic thinking. Unfortunately until some level heads prevail, my botanical colleagues in Switzerland are stuck dealing with this.

What this is all about is a resistance to genetically modified crops. And we must presume that altering a plant’s genetics is an affront to its dignity. I guess a certain case can be made for that. Let’s face it, a toy poodle doesn’t have too much dignity. But humans have been altering the genetics of plants ever since their domestication began. Wonder if ethicists like seedless grapes? Have they ever had a fertile banana? Eating around all those big, hard seeds is something special. What could be a bigger offense to the biological dignity of an organism than to propagate sterile plants when their whole purpose was to reproduce?

So who will decide what offends the dignity of plants? To help out the Phytophactor will channel your research plants to determine if their dignity is offended, for a modest fee, payable in Swiss cheeses, of course.

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