Maintaining the dignity of plants

Owing to some of my recent less-than-serious posts, I have to assure you that what follows is not a joke. 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 (see Nature News, 23 April 2008; subscription required). All plant biotechnology grant applications must now include a paragraph explaining the extent to which plant dignity is considered. The Swiss constitution says that the 'dignity of creatures' must be taken into account in the gene-technology arena, which is why the term has been adopted into the regulations. The government called on the advice of its ethics committee two years ago to help develop a definition for plants. 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. Hybridization of roses? Shelling peas? Treading grapes? Or, as suggested by one online commenter, mowing the lawn?