The Swiss federal government's ethics committee on non-human biotechnology has mapped out guidelines to help granting agencies decide which research applications deeply offend the dignity of plants — and hence become unfundable.
And the rabbit hole just goes down from there. Later on we're told:
All plant biotechnology grant applications must now include a paragraph explaining the extent to which plant dignity is considered. “But scientists don't know what it means,” says Beat Keller of the Institute of Plant Biology at the University of Zurich who is running the first field trial — of disease-resistant corn (maize) — to be approved under the new legislation.
By this point, I was going a little cross-eyed. But when I got to:
The committee has created a decision tree presenting the different issues that need to be taken into account for each case. But it has come up with few concrete examples of what type of experiment might be considered an unacceptable insult to plant dignity. The committee does not consider that genetic engineering of plants automatically falls into this category, but its majority view holds that it would if the genetic modification caused plants to 'lose their independence' — for example by interfering with their capacity to reproduce.
my eyes crossed so far they actually migrated past each other and each fell out the opposite ear. I have had cause to complain a couple of times before about poorly thought-out legislation interfering with legitimate research, but this has got to be about the most downright comical example of which I've ever heard. So what exactly defines a plant's "dignity"? Is a researcher offending a plant's delicate dignity if they spend an unwelcome amount of time leering at their stigmata? Are too many botanical chikan-committers fiddling with Arabidopsis stamens?
Okay, let's calm down a minute and take this seriously - specifically, the latter point that interfering with a plant's ability to reproduce would count as a violation of its "dignity". As pointed out in the Nature article, this could be quite a problem for plant research, particularly research on horticultural significant taxa which are often deliberately bred to be infertile. Not only are seedless fruit often more popular among consumers, but any gardener knows that vegetatively-propagated plants can be relied on to maintain consistent characters while seed-produced progeny are often annoyingly unpredictable. One commenter on the article also points out that infertility can also act as a safeguard when developing, for instance, a genetically-modified variety of an important crop plant, as researchers can feel confident that the novel variety will remain contained until it has been fully tested and its characteristics will not be spread through pollination.
Another commenter seems to have had the same reaction to the story I did:
Please tell me that this is merely a three-week old April Fool's story that somehow slipped by the editors.