As a general rule, I don't read e-mails with warnings - "This is SERIOUS, it happened to a friend of mine!" - or forwarding requests - "Read it! It doesn't cost a thing and it will turn you into Oliver Twist!". But sometimes, due to a random alignment of events, I open and read them, become fascinated and end up reading something in the Museum of Hoaxes. That's how I got to know about a study that dates back to April 2008, from the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH), in Switzerland, entitled “The dignity of living beings with regard to plants”.
This study is not a fraud. The pictures from the Society for the Protection of Plants are, however, part of a false campaign that tries to compare human rights to the rights of plants and, as a consequence, seeks the starvation of vegetarians.
The study by the ECNH hopes to be the first serious step in an ethical debate about the dignity of plants and about the way humans should treat them. The committee is aware that such a step might be considered ridiculous and defends itself with the kindness of criteria it might arrive at.
There are seven conclusions from this study.
1. We should not harm plants without a good reason.
2. The complete instrumentalisation of plants – as a collective, as a species, or as individuals – requires moral justification.
3. Plants – as a collective, as a species, or as individuals – are excluded for moral reasons from absolute ownership; a minority of the committee members defends the opposite.
4. There is nothing to contradict the idea of dignity of living beings in the genetic modification of plants, as long as their independence, i.e. reproductive ability and adaptive ability are ensured.
5. When it comes to patent registry, the committee tries to find a cop out, with the majority of members saying that the ethical justification of patenting plants is a question of social ethics. It is not one involving the consideration of plants for their own sake and therefore not the object of this discussion either. A minority of members believes that patent registry is incompatible with the dignity of plants.
6. Genetic modification of plants should, in the majority opinion, always involve consideration of conserving and safeguarding the natural, i.e. not man-made, network of
7. A majority considers any action with or towards plants that serves the self-preservation of humans to be morally justified, as long as it is appropriate and follows the principle of precaution.
Half of these conclusions seem to be just good sense translated into official committee language. For instance, in the first conclusion, the report mentions the decapitation of wild flowers by the side of the road. For such, there must be a good reason. Offer them to someone? Decorate? Play "love me, love me not"?
The other half are caught between sounding like fraud and reasonably debatable, which in a planet of delicate balances - very delicate indeed - shouldn't be that despicable.
Transversal to the study is the strange posture of the committee itself. It seems that, by examining the pros and cons of the defense of dignity of plants, the vision of the ecosystem, as a whole, disappeared. Actually, I can't even see that it was there to begin with. It's like plants are very important, as well as attaining a humane posture of respect towards them, but the members are deliberating from an Olympus. The fact that it is a Swiss committee sounds to me a bit suspicious and I can't avoid having some prejudice while reading it: Switzerland is a country of great order and I still haven't figured out if this great order is an ambition for the common good or just an ambition in itself. But it should be for the greater good, after all Switzerland is a democracy. A democracy asking for antiseptic fictions, but a democracy nonetheless.
There are entire paragraphs in the report that still make me think that in a week the Museum of Hoaxes will apologize to the public: "The ECNH was a fraud, after all". Even then, the subject wouldn't leave limbo.