Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Un-Labelling GMOs

figure 1.
Modern banana (top)
Wild banana (bottom)
In case you are new to the debate, GMO standards for Genetically Modified Organisms (sometimes called GEGenetically Engineered) and refers to plants and animals whose DNA have been modified by Humans.  The term GMO is itself a bit of a misnomer; not because it is inaccurate but instead because it is misleading.  In reality every living thing has been genetically modified by evolution which is constantly modifying the DNA of animals through the process of natural selection.  Additionally, nearly all food we eat today has been genetically modified through the process of artificial selection—we have been selectively breeding plants for thousands of years and most of us would not recognize the natural versions of many of the foods we eat today (such as the banana that has been drastically changed by selective breeding).  Thus, the term GMO when applied only to foods modified by humans is a misnomer because it suggests that only synthetically modified foods are genetically modified when in fact all foods have been genetically modified either through natural or artificial selection.  So to use the term GMO correctly we should say that every living thing is a GMO.  However, to avoid confusion I will use GMO in the modern sense of the word that refers only to those living things that have had their DNA modified directly by humans.

Now that we have the definition of GMOs out of the way lets move to the current debate.  Despite the fact that current research is showing that GMOs are safe to eat and are a promising avenue for achieving more environmentally friendly farming techniques there are many groups against GMOs.  One thing these groups are fighting for is to force foods containing GMOs to be labeled so that consumers can choose not to buy them.  Many countries already have such regulations and some countries have even forbidden the selling of GMOs.  In the U.S. this battle is just now starting in places like California where enough signatures were gathered to put up a measure on the ballot this November.  But remember, all food we eat is genetically modified.  Thus it appears a bit absurd to force sellers to label these foods as GMOs unless there is a health difference.

Is there then a reason that we should force GMOs to be labeled?  This question raises up three primary issues: 1. is there any evidence that GMOs are dangerous and thus should be labeled for safety reasons; 2. do consumer's have a right to force labeling merely because they want it; and 3. does consumer choice create a right to know what is in food?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is there really a Bengal tiger in Puyallup?

Breaking News: Bengal tiger spotted in Puyallup!  If you live in Washington you've probably heard this  exaggerated headline.  The problem is that no one actually even claims to have seen a tiger.  But yet we see headlines like these: Tiger on the loose in Washington StateTiger on the prowl between Tacoma, Puyallup; or  Tiger sighting reported in Pierce County.

As usual this appears to be a case of exaggerated news reporting.  It is of course possible that people did see a tiger, but from the facts being reported so far it sounds a little far fetched.  In fact there were only two reports of sightings and it appears that neither sightings claimed that it was a tiger just that they saw a "fairly large" cat.

One witness even stated: "it was a blond animal with black stripes, that's all I said."  Animal control then took this description and said it "sounded like" a tiger.  But if we look further at the description given by the witness we have some clues to what this really might have been.

The witness stated that he saw a large cat walking away from him in the tall grass that was blond with black stripes.  In Washington we do not have native Bengal Tigers, but we do have native cougars that are known to range widely.  Tiger's are orange in coloration whereas cougars tend to be tan, or blondish.  Imagine what a cougar would look like walking through tall grass on a sunny day... it would be a blondish big cat with black stripes from the shadows cast by the grass.  So what is more likely, that the man saw a non-native Bengal Tiger or that he saw a native cougar walking through tall grass dappled with shadows?  Remember that this man did not even claim to have seen a tiger, he claimed to have seen a large cat.  It was only animal control who added the tiger label.  I of course am making my judgments based off of minimal information only having seen a brief interview of the man.  Thus, perhaps there was more information that lead animal control to believe it could be a Bengal Tiger.

But from the man's statement: "that's all I said" it appears he may even have been surprised by the Tiger claim.  Additionally, we have to wonder who hasn't at least seen pictures or video of a tiger if not seen one at a local zoo.  Thus, I would assume the man who saw the cat knows what a tiger looks like and if he didn't think it was a tiger on his own I find it hardly plausible that animal control could identify it as a tiger based on his description.

This sounds like a case of exaggeration and misidentification.  It is of course possible that there is a Bengal Tiger on the loose, but judging from the statements being released by the news outlets it sounds much more likely that a cougar was simply wandering through the neighborhood.  Apparently sensationalism dictates that news outlets should should state, as fact, the most implausible explanation for an event and then make sure that the implausible explanation becomes the bold lettered title of the story.