If plants have rights, how will this affect the cost of salad?
Last month, the Agence-France-Presse, the oldest news agency in the world, reported that the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Gene Technology in Geneva, Switzerland, "condemned the decapitation of flowers without reason." And this week the American press--starting with The Weekly Standard and then Fox News--has been picking up the story.
What really got people talking was that this Swiss governmental ethics committee came up with guidelines to protect "the dignity of plants."
Naturally, some reporters have had a lot of fun reporting about this (and I'm no different). Whether you agree or disagree with the magazine's politics, you have to chuckle at The Weekly Standard's headline, "The Silent Scream of the Asparagus."
Sure, a tree probably doesn't feel embarrassed when someone carves their initials into the trunk or ties a tire swing to one of its branches. I doubt a bush winces when it is pruned, or for that matter, that prunes shriek when they're squeezed into juice. But the committee isn't saying any of that. They're trying to come up with guidelines for researchers who experiment on plants.
They point out that it's within ethical grounds to pull petals off a daisy because of the pure pleasure a human can get from it, and they have no problem with farming (so, phew, this shouldn't be a tip of the iceberg where eventually we're trying to make the wheat is grown comfortably before we harvest it).
In the end, when some people start forest fires with the careless drop of a match, and developers have no problem destroying an aging oak tree because they want space to put a few cars in their parking lot, it probably is pretty silly to ask highly educated scientists to consider how their experiments might be affecting a plant's dignity.
And yet, in this day and age, when urban sprawl seems out of control, when our planet seems to have been industrialized into a giant ball of concrete and chemicals, it seems like it's not a bad idea to discuss anything that might lead to better treatment of plants, and as an extension, our world. In that light, if people want to decide that grains of sand have moral rights, too, and that leads to fewer rusty soda pop cans strewn about at the beach, hey, I'm all for it.
Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).