John Mueller kindly alerted me to Gautam Naik, "Switzerland's Green Power Revolution: Ethicists Ponder Plants' Rights," Wall Street Journal, 10 October 2008.
Naik reports that the government of Switzerland has required researchers to "conduct their research without trampling on a plant's dignity," based on an April 2008 treatise, The Dignity of Living Beings With Regard to Plants.
The treatise itself notes that the members of the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology could not reach consensus on most of the moral questions they considered, and some worried about over-regulation. Nevertheless, "The Committee members unanimously consider an arbitrary harm caused to plants to be morally impermissible. This kind of treatment would include, e.g. decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason," though even then the committee members disagreed over why such decapitation is impermissible. Nor does the report lay out criteria for a "rational reason." What if it's fun to decapitate wildflowers?
[Disclosure: As a boy, I liked to knock the heads off dandelions with a stick. Guess I won't be getting a visa to Switzerland any time soon.]
Naik's article focuses on the threat to genetic research, but if there's anything that four decades of human subjects regulation has taught us, it's that government officials refuse to recognize distinctions between lab experimentation and social science. Perhaps we should expect restrictions on the observation, surveying, and interviewing of plants as well. In six months Washington's cherry blossoms will be out, and I pity all those poor trees, left helpless as hundreds of thousands of people come to gawk at their exposed genitals.