Feed the planet, or protect the inherent dignity of plants? Is this a trick question?
In the recent movie The Happening, plants, threatened by the growing human population, release a toxin into the air that causes people to kill themselves. A nursery owner tells the hero that plants can not only “target specific threats,” they can also communicate with each other and coordinate their “defense.”
While The Happening was panned by audiences and critics, one country appears to have taken the threat from plants seriously enough to sue for peace with the plant kingdom. That’s Switzerland.
How? By enshrining the “dignity”—their word, not mine—of plants in their constitution.
A molecular biologist at the University of Zürich recently sought permission to field test wheat that had been genetically modified to resist a particular kind of fungus. He not only had to prove that the test wouldn’t have unintended environmental consequences, he also had to “debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists.” Then, he had to satisfy government officials that the trial “wouldn’t ‘disturb the vital functions or lifestyle’ of the plants.”
Dignity? Lifestyle? Of plants? Like many a farcical road, this one was paved with good intentions. In the 1990s, Switzerland amended its constitution to require that “account to be taken of the dignity of creation” —Switzerland’s word, not mine—“when handling animals, plants and other organisms.”
Then, last spring, the parliament asked a panel of “philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians” to determine how this requirement applies to plants. The panel’s report concluded that people do not have “absolute ownership” over plants and that “individual plants have an inherent worth.” Therefore, they concluded, “we may not use them just as we please, even if the plant community is not in danger.”