Swiss Ethicists Consider Plants' Feelings

Field of wheat photo

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What does wheat want? That's a question scientists in Switzerland have to ponder now that the country is mandating that geneticists conduct their experiments with consideration to a plant's feelings, according to The Wall Street Journal.

"Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously," Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich, tells the newspaper. "It's one more constraint on doing genetic research."

In order to obtain government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified, fungus-resistant wheat, Keller had to spar with university ethicists over whether his experiment would impugn upon the plants' dignity and then explain in a written application to the government why his experiment wouldn't "disturb the vital functions of lifestyle" of the plant.In April, a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists, and theologians formed at the behest of the Swiss Parliament published a 22-page report on "the moral consideration of plants for their own sake," stating that vegetation has inherent value and that it is morally abhorrent to harm the plants "without rational reason."

Writes Gautam Naik in The Wall Street Journal:

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.

While Switzerland protects lab animals and plants from genetic modification, snails and drosophila flies, commonly used in genetic experiments, have been offered no such sanctuary. Some critics of the new ruling also wonder where the line will be drawn?

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

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