Field of Science

Giving Plants the Glove

Today's Nature has got what has to one of the most confusing news items I've read for some time - Swiss 'dignity' law is threat to plant biology. To quote the news item:

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.


  1. So; no more ripping out weeds; we must allow them to "die with dignity".

    Are the Swiss to be allowed to deadhead their flowers before they have gone to seed?

    If I photograph my rhododendron's "private parts", have I "deeply offended" it?

    How would I know?

  2. If I photograph my rhododendron's "private parts", have I "deeply offended" it? How would I know?

    I would have thought that was obvious - if they've turned red, then they must be deeply embaressed.

    From this, I can infer that white rhododendrons must be shameless hussies - letting it all hang out like that, and not even blushing!

  3. I think we really need to consider the implications of genetic engineering regarding bacterial dignity. We have ruthlessly exploited this group of organisms, seemingly thinking our actions are justified because they do not have membrane-bound organelles. We need to rethink from the ground up the ethics of experimenting upon bacteria.

  4. so much for the virginal look of white flowers! "Shameless hussies", indeed!

    I'm going to be chuckling at that all spring and summer.

  5. The relevant quote from the article is:

    “At the moment not even authorities who decide on grants know what the 'dignity of plants' really means,” says Markus Schefer, a constitution lawyer at the University of Basel and a member of the ethics committee."

    You can instantly see that this committee has taken an overtly elitist approach.

    Anyone truly interested in what offends the dignity of plants would ask the plants themselves.

    Given the diversity of plant species and their habitats, one should expect to encounter a wide diversity among plants regarding dignity.

    For instance, a rhododendron might be offended by photographic depictions of its reproductive organs, while a rose might be flattered.

    On the other hand, a pineapple might find this issue completely irrelevant and complain instead about harvesting techniques--or, indeed, if they should be harvested at all.

    Of course, the most important challenge to those truly interested in determining the interests of plants in their dignity is whether the plants can be interrogated 'humanely' or if the methods used constitute torture.

    Then, there's the matter of determining if the plants are telling the truth.

    Many fungi, whom I know personally, tell me that plants are habitual liars.

  6. Well, I think we can all have faith that the "Decision Tree" will be a careful, impartial arbiter. Like the trash heap on Fraggle Rock...

  7. I'm just imagining the dialogues now:

    Anyone truly interested in what offends the dignity of plants would ask the plants themselves.

    Researcher (speaking to her greenhouse): "I'm about to chop you into little pieces now. If you've got any objections, now would be the time to speak up".

    Well, I think we can all have faith that the "Decision Tree" will be a careful, impartial arbiter. Like the trash heap on Fraggle Rock...

    Researcher: "You've cut off my funding!"

    Bureaucrat: "The decision tree has spoken. Gnyah!"

  8. Maybe we should stop eating plants.


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