You may have heard of animal rights, but what about plant rights? In Switzerland, the dignity of plants is not only a philosophical concept, but a constitutional principle that guides the ethical use of biotechnology. Switzerland is the only country in the world that recognizes the dignity of plants in its constitution, which requires account to be taken of the dignity of living beings when handling animals, plants and other organisms.
This unique policy stems from a public initiative on gene protection that was launched in 1992 and aimed to prevent the unwanted consequences of genetic manipulation. The initiative led to a constitutional amendment that was adopted in 1998 and established the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) to advise the government on ethical issues related to biotechnology and to put the concept of dignity of living beings into concrete terms.
In 2008, the ECNH published a groundbreaking report on the moral consideration of plants for their own sake, which explored the philosophical and ethical implications of granting plants dignity and respect. The report argued that plants are not mere objects or resources, but living beings that have an inherent value and a claim to be treated appropriately according to their nature. The report also proposed some criteria for evaluating human interventions on plants, such as proportionality, integrity and freedom.
“The aim is to protect the intrinsic value of living beings as ends-in-themselves, not merely as means for human ends,” the report stated. “Plants should also be protected from unjustified interventions on their appearance, from humiliation and from being disproportionately instrumentalised.”
The report was based on many discoveries in recent years that suggest a new ‘sensitive’ picture of plants. “Plants are active in sensing numerous parameters from their environment, communicate extensively and actively; they interact with their surroundings. They can choose between different possibilities and change their behaviour accordingly,” said Florianne Koechlin, a member of the ECNH and a plant biologist.
The report sparked a lively debate in Switzerland and abroad, with some critics dismissing it as absurd and dangerous, and others praising it as visionary and progressive. Some questioned how plant dignity could be applied in practice, especially in agriculture and food production. Others wondered how plant dignity relates to other environmental or ethical issues, such as climate change, biodiversity or animal welfare.
The ECNH acknowledged that plant dignity is not a simple or clear-cut concept, but rather a dynamic and evolving one that requires constant reflection and dialogue. The committee also emphasized that plant dignity does not imply that plants have rights or feelings, but rather that they deserve moral consideration for their own sake.
The Swiss constitution maintains that “The Confederation shall legislate on the use of reproductive and genetic material from animals, plants and other organisms. In doing so, it shall take into account the dignity of living beings as well as the safety of human beings, animals and the environment, and shall protect the genetic diversity of animal and plant species.”
Switzerland may be the only country that recognizes the dignity of plants in its constitution, but it is not alone in its quest to find a more respectful and responsible way of relating to nature. As biotechnology advances and challenges our understanding of life, perhaps we can all learn something from the Swiss example.
– Swiss Parliament Imposes Human “Dignity” for Plants, The Scientist, 2023-05-30
– Dignity of living beings – Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology ECNH, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), 2023-05-29
– Full article: The dignity of plants – Taylor & Francis Online, Plant Signaling & Behavior, 2023-05-28
– TIL that Switzerland is so far the only country in the world that recognizes the dignity of plants in its constitution, Reddit, 2023-06-01