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Swiss ponder the 'dignity of plants'

Biotech guidelines tackle thorny issue

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A Swiss government ethics committee has issued guidelines on the thorny issue of the "dignity of plants" in relation to biotech research after the country's 2004 Gene Technology Law declared that "the dignity of creatures" should be considered in any grant-funded research.

According to Nature, while this phrase attracted plenty of flak for its "general woolliness", it certainly includes plants. The powers that be therefore mandated the committee two years ago to clarify the matter.

Member Markus Schefer, a constitution lawyer at the University of Basel, said: “My first reaction was - what the heck are we doing considering the dignity of plants. But this very broad provision exists, and we have to help to prevent a legal mire.”

He added: "At the moment not even authorities who decide on grants know what the 'dignity of plants' really means. That's why we were asked to deliberate.”

The upshot of the deliberations is that "all plant biotechnology grant applications must now include a paragraph explaining the extent to which plant dignity is considered".

Specifically, the committee has issued a "decision tree presenting the different issues that need to be taken into account for each case".

It has also presented "concrete examples of what type of experiment might be considered an unacceptable insult to plant dignity". While it has conceded that GM modification of plants doesn't automatically offend said dignity, experiments which caused them to "lose their independence" would do so.

This independence might be exemplified by the ability to reproduce - the removal of which would breach the guidelines. Nonplussed biologists have pointed out this is at odds with "traditional plant-hybridization technologies, for example in roses, which require male sterility, and the commercial development of seedless fruits". ®

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