in the Context of Genetic Engineering
Proceedings of an Ifgene workshop on 9 - 11 May 2001
at the Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland
Edited by David Heaf and Johannes Wirz
Summary (pages 58-59)
Some forty people from various occupations including law, moral philosophy, molecular and holistic biology, plant breeding, horticulture, food manufacturing, environmental activism, overseas aid and political science met for two days in May 2001 to work on this theme. The following is a selection by the authors of their impressions of the key points which arose during the proceedings.
1. It emerged from this multi-disciplinary workshop that, for the time being at least, the meaning of the concepts intrinsic value and integrity of plants remains fuzzy. Indeed their novelty in the public mind is reflected in the lack of uniformity with which the term 'dignity of creatures' is presented in the Swiss constitution in its three official languages and in its authorised English translation.
2. Unlike the observations and facts of quantitative science, which are obtained by well defined criteria and which gain a status of depersonalised, 'objective' truth, e.g. plant height, dry weight etc., the concepts intrinsic value and integrity must be developed on the basis of the personal perception of signs. But plants are more than the sum of a myriad isolated characteristics. Thus the content of these concepts is strongly dependent on both our individual inner view of plants and the fundamental man-nature relationship. However, this fact should not be interpreted as a reason for attributing merely subjective qualities to intrinsic value and integrity. On the contrary, the papers presented show beyond doubt that the justification for ascribing integrity or dignity to plants is rooted in qualities which must be elucidated by human consciousness yet reside essentially in the plants themselves. Hence, we recognise dignity as well as bestow it.
3. It is relatively easy to attribute a moral status to sentient animals (zoocentric approach) on the basis of their similarity to man, because they can feel pain or they exhibit a comparable neural organisation. But attributing an equally valid moral status to plants (biocentric approach) is possible only by acknowledging their otherness. It remains an open question whether this otherness or autonomy of plants is inaccessible to man and thus locked in the eternal black box of their essence or whether it is open to human knowledge. Obviously, ascribing intrinsic value and dignity depends on a deepened and conscious relationship to plants.
4. In contrast to animals, which exhibit what we may call a 'centre of being', plants are much more inclined to mirror their environmental conditions and context (ecocentric approach). Thus, any approach towards a moral status of plants has to take into consideration these 'peripheral qualities'. As a consequence, a thorough evaluation of intrinsic value and integrity of plants must respect this interdependence. Breeding and cultivation practices have always dealt with such mutualisms. Genetically engineered plants in general require standardised conditions of cultivation, which basically can be created and applied on a global scale. On the other hand, cultivation of crop plants in systems which acknowledge ecological, geographic and cultural differences, requires a spectrum of locally adapted varieties. As a consequence, one could argue that any restriction of crop plant diversity and concomitant reduction of production system diversity interferes with intrinsic values and integrity. Plants without context are mental abstractions.
5. Weighing intrinsic value and integrity of plants must include some form of scaling process. It would be counterintuitive to judge these properties on the same level regardless of whether man, animals or plants are under consideration. However, there is good reason to ask at what point in legislative processes such discrimination should take place. Implementation of these concepts in juridical frameworks and laws is very limited and where approaches have been undertaken to protect intrinsic values and integrity in the constitution and the law as in Switzerland the consequences remain obscure and ineffective.
6. Practices of breeding and production should fulfil sustainability criteria by using natural vegetative processes and growth conditions to a significant extent. Examples were presented in the workshop showing that where this is done there is a tremendous improvement of the economic, societal and personal conditions of the producers themselves. Respecting intrinsic value and integrity of plants results in a real added value in the cultural sphere. This lends support to the ideas derived from philosophical considerations that these concepts arise from the strong, practical interrelation of nature and man. As a consequence, commissions, working groups or advisory boards dealing with the issue of intrinsic value and integrity of plants should be genuinely interdisciplinary and broadly based.
7. There was general agreement that basing the paradigm for understanding plants exclusively on molecular biology is inadequate for judging the essence of integrity and intrinsic value of plants and for assessing where these attributes might be violated. Therefore, alternative paradigms are necessary. The holistic approaches presented by some speakers are good examples for demonstrating that moral reflections on plants require a spiritual foundation. Indeed it was clearly evident from them that such a foundation is accessible and communicable to a modern consciousness and that unbiased observation of plants together with deliberate attention to personal intentionality reveal their spatial and temporal contexts which transcend purely sensual qualities and turn out to be relevant for making judgements.
8. A thorough examination of the technical procedures involved in the generation of genetically modified plants vividly illustrated the need to base the development of viewpoints concerning intrinsic value and integrity of plants in the context of genetic engineering on actual experience. Thus, when attempting to understand the concepts, intentions, working hypotheses or possible benefits and risks, it is strongly recommended that we also try to gain insights into the current experimental situations and laboratory conditions of plants. Complementary unbiased observations of developmental and vegetative processes are a promising addition to the toolbox when trying to understand plant integrity and intrinsic value.
Johannes Wirz and David Heaf
Contents and ordering details