Human Exceptionalism

Yes, But Is it Good for the Wheat?

Scientists have developed a new strain of wheat that can increase yields and resist a virulent fungus. From the Greenwire story via the NYT:

A multinational group of scientists has developed farm-ready wheat resistant to a virulent and devastating plague that has slowly spread from Africa into the Middle East, carrying with it the threat of famine. Researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico will announce next week that they have developed wheat varieties showing “near immune” resistance to deadly stem rust disease. Once thought as well-conquered as polio, stem rust is known for killing as much as half a harvest.

That’s great news, but better not tell the Swiss. Their constitution protects the individual dignity of plants and hence, such experimentation might not pass ethical muster.  Indeed, a Swiss scientist once had difficulty obtaining grant money for genetic research into making a fungus resistant wheat–until he explained it would be good for the wheatFrom the SHS report on the nonsense:

I sometimes despair how hard it seems to be for so many people to “get” why attempts to depersonalize some humans as we personalize nature are so harmful. But it is, and unless current trends are reversed, it will get increasingly worse. Take the recent declaration of individual “plant dignity” in Switzerland as a minor example of the attitudes that are already impinging on experiments designed to help humankind. From the story:

For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants? That’s a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant’s dignity.”Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously,” Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. “It’s one more constraint on doing genetic research.”

Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn’t “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants. He eventually got the green light…When applying for a larger field trial, he ran into the thorny question of plant dignity. Plants don’t have a nervous system and probably can’t feel pain, but no one knows for sure. So Dr. Keller argued that by protecting wheat from fungus he was actually helping the plant, not violating its dignity–and helping society in the process.

No, that’s not from a Woody Allen movie (back when he was funny).

So, good for the scientists, and may their work bear much fruit, er, grain.  But one wonders if the plant dignity and rights of nature movements grow, whether such monkeying around with nature–particularly if it involves genetic engineering–will be allowed regardless of the potential for human good.


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