Vegetable liberation

Does a tree have fundamental rights? Is it possible to affront the basic dignity of a carrot, or trample the moral entitlements of a mushroom? Swiss politicians have decided that we can’t allow these burning questions to continue to go unanswered; under rules established by a new constitutional amendment, Swiss plant researchers will from now on be obliged to demonstrate that their work does not “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the flora in question.

In practice the new rules mean that, in Switzerland at least, plants will now have a fundamental moral right to exist and reproduce. The new rules are vague about exactly what that means, although they do say that scientists are no longer allowed to create sterile plants for research purposes or to pick wildflowers “without rational reason”.

More broadly, the rules require researchers hoping to study plant genetics to submit written applications to the government, and to justify their experiments to a university ethics board. “We couldn't start laughing and tell the government we're not going to do anything about it,” says Markus Schefer, who sits on the ethics panel at the University of Basel. “The constitution requires it.”

Switzerland isn’t the first country to assign constitutional rights to the vegetable kingdom; last month, Ecuadorians voted for a new constitution that gives the country’s air, forests and waterways “the right to exist, persist and … regenerate”.

Still, for the time being most greens are looking for more practical ways to persuade people to protect the planet. At the World Conservation Congress, currently underway in Barcelona, researchers and policy wonks have been chattering about a new study that pegs the annual cost of deforestation at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion, since chopping down trees means we have to pay more to provide people with clean air and water.

Study leader Pavan Sukhdev notes that the total cost of logging and land-clearance dwarfs the economic fallout from the current financial crisis. "It's not only greater but it's also continuous, it's been happening every year, year after year," he told the BBC. That’s the message that greens need to drive home. Never mind the dignity of plants: saving the planet is a pocketbook issue, and our leaders’ inaction is costing us big bucks.

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