Plant and Animal Sentience

In an earlier post I referred to the following report, written by a Swiss Federal Ethics Committee back in 2008:


The complete title of the English translation of the report is:  “The dignity of livings beings with regard to plants.  Moral consideration of plants for their own sake.”  The use of the word dignity here comes from the use of term Würde der Kreatur (“dignity of living beings“) in Swiss constitutional law.  The purpose of the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee was to discuss how Swiss law should give concrete interpretation to the term Würde der Kreatur.  The report on plants complemented a separate report that discussed dignity with regard to animals.

With respect to the question of sentience in plants, it is perhaps worth quoting a section of the report:

“Although plants do not have a central nervous system, the question arises of whether sentience necessarily depends on a central nervous system, and whether disturbances have to be perceived consciously. Since we do not have the kind of access to plants that would enable us to answer this, we simply do not know. It is nevertheless imaginable that plants have other possibilities for experiencing harm or benefit. Studies in cell biology show that plants and animals, which share a developmental history lasting 3 billion years, have many processes and reactions that do not differ fundamentally at the cellular level.  Plants can choose between various ways of behaving and can change their behaviour. For example, plants undergo complex interactions with their environment, just as animals do. While animals move and respond to external stimuli e.g. with flight or fight, plants react by modifying their developmental processes and adapting their growth. They thus express great plasticity of behaviour. Plants also have a differentiated hormonal system for internal communication.  The action potential of cellular communication also shows similarities to the signals of nerve fibres in animals. Plants react to touch and stress, or defend themselves against predators and pathogens, in highly differentiated ways.  Based on the results of such investigations, we may ask whether the moral consideration of plants can be discarded with the argument that plants lack the conditions of negative or positive experience. It is not clear that plants have sentience, but neither is it clear that this is not the case. It cannot therefore be argued that the reasons for excluding plants from the circle of beings that must be morally considered, have been eliminated.”  (p. 15)

Include plants in "the circle of beings that must be morally considered"?  I suppose that is a reasonable thing to do.  If chickens are going to be considered part of the moral community, then why not cauliflower and carrots?  If the fish must be included, why not all the plants used to make Swiss muesli?  It all sounds very inclusive. 

Did the Swiss actually incorporate the ideas generated in the Committee's reports into law or regulation?  Well, to some extent.  The laws related to the keeping of pets and farm animals have become stricter and wider in their scope in the past couple of years.  Rumour has it that local producers of meat in Switzerland are slowly being edged out of business because of the onerous nature of new animal rights laws.  What is clearly not rumour is the high cost of food in Switzerland, averaging 25% to 30% higher than in the EU.  Cross-border shopping has become a chronic drain on the Swiss economy:



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