The new Frank N. Foode™!

Here’s a short update that I’m sure everyone will be interested to hear about. After several redesigns and adjustments, I’m really pleased to announce that the design for the new Frank N. Foode plushie that many of you have been waiting for – is done!

newfrank2

So here’ what comes next. Continue reading.

Announcing the launch of the GENERA beta test

We are proud to announce the launch of the new GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA) website and the public beta test of our system. Today, for the first time ever, the public will be able to see what we have been working on for so long. Check out our press release and let us know what you think about the new GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas! In addition, scroll to the bottom to see infographics made by the Genetic Literacy Project to illustrate some of the important preliminary findings of the GENERA project.

Press Release (PDF)

New resource shows half of GMO research is independent

Those who follow the issue of genetically engineered crops have heard claims that there is little independent research on their safety for consumption or the environment. A new public database of research tells a different story. The resource is the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA), and it goes public on 25 August 2014. The results show that independent peer-reviewed research on GMOs is common, conducted worldwide, and makes up half of the total of all research on risks associated with genetic engineering.

GENERA is a searchable database of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the relative risks of genetically engineered crops. The database includes important details at-a-glance to help people find and learn about the science of GMOs. GENERA has now entered its beta-testing phase with the first 400 out of over 1,200 studies that have been curated.

GENERA is a project of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI), an independent tax-exempt non-profit. The mission of BFI is to strengthen the public discussion of issues in biology, with particular emphasis on genetics and genetic engineering in agriculture. Founded in 2008 as a scientist-run information resource and public forum, Biology Fortified does not accept funding from industry sources, and is instead funded by the contributions of readers and grants.

Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, Chair and co-Director of BFI, said that people are looking for independent information about GMOs. “People are looking for sources that they can trust that can help them find unbiased information about genetic engineering, but in a politically-charged debate, unbiased sources are difficult to find. We’ve been recognized for our independent expertise on this subject, so it was only natural that we should take a project like this on.”

GENERA started as a list of studies to show people how much research has been conducted on GMOs, however the members of BFI quickly recognized that something better was needed. To begin work on GENERA, BFI was awarded a peer-reviewed grant from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) Educational Foundation in 2012. The Atlas was developed during 2013 and 2014. BFI enlisted the help of a team of awesome volunteers who tracked down and entered the details of hundreds of studies into the Atlas.

Journalists, scientists, public officials, and anyone else can use GENERA to search for research on the effectiveness of using genetic engineering to modify the genetics of plants, and can find studies that compare GMOs to non-GMOs to see if they are equivalent. Studies conducted on the safety of consuming genetically engineered foods and their impacts on the environment are also included in the Atlas.

“We’ve made it really easy for people to find the information they are looking for in the Atlas,” said Dr. Anastasia Bodnar, co-Director of BFI. “Every study has a page that tells you all about who did the research and in what countries, what crops and traits were studied, and who funded it.” Each study page also posts the results of the research, said Dr. Bodnar. “We read the studies so you don’t have to – and we have links to the studies so you can read them if you want to!”

GENERA also offers users a unique opportunity to look at the results of hundreds of studies at once with a built-in chart feature. After doing a search, users can turn that search into a chart of the selected studies to look at their results, funding sources, or almost any other attribute they want.

“We are really proud of the chart feature,” said Dr. Haro von Mogel. “If you want to know anything what animals GMOs were fed to, or what kinds of traits are being studied in different countries, you can do that instantly. This lets you look at the big picture and answer your own questions about what research is out there like never before.” The site currently includes two tutorials and a glossary of terms to help visitors learn how to use these features.

The team at BFI is already seeing patterns in the research. Out of the first 400 randomly-selected studies available in the GENERA beta test, half of them are funded entirely by government agencies and independent nonprofit organizations. Before the project began, rough estimates placed them at just a third of the research. And the government-funded research is worldwide in scope – concentrated in Europe and Asia, followed by North America and Australia. These findings should turn the heads of people who thought it was skewed to private, U.S.-based laboratories.

“Not all of our results are surprising,” said Dr. Bodnar. “Systematic reviews have concluded that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat, and when you look at the results collected in GENERA, it agrees with that conclusion.”

The Atlas is a work-in-progress, and BFI needs help to complete the project. Anyone can volunteer to help the project – you do not have to be a scientist to make a valuable contribution. Tax-deductible donations will help fund the maintenance and development of the Atlas. Even just trying out the resource and answering a brief survey will be a big help to the project.

Visit the GENERA website at genera.biofortified.org or follow @GENERA_news on twitter for updates about this exciting project.

Media Contact:

Karl Haro von Mogel, Ph.D.

Chair, co-Director, Biology Fortified, Inc.

karl@biofortified.org

(608) 284-8842

Images (created by the Genetic Literacy Project):

Map of government-funded GMO studies around the world (jpg | PDF with links)

GENERA Map

The scientific literature on the safety of GMOs for consumption (jpg | PDF with links)

GENERA Safety

Do GMO crops “foster monocultures?”

Corn+Harvest+USB

Corn harvest, from United Soybean Board

Do GMO crops “foster monoculture?” This is a frequent criticism of modern agriculture. I have three problems with it:

  1. “Monoculture” isn’t the right term to use to describe the relevant issues – its really about a limited crop rotation
  2. History and economics are the drivers behind this phenomenon, not crop biotechnology
  3. The solutions – to the extent that they are needed – are not what most critics seem to imagine

The Corn Belt of the Midwestern US, is a multi-million acre farming region almost entirely dominated by just two crops – corn and soybeans.  This phenomenon is often termed “monoculture,”  but monoculture is merely the practical approach of growing a single crop in a given field.  The opposite of monoculture is “polyculture” and it is entirely impractical for even minimally mechanized farming.

The Corn Belt is more accurately described as an example of a “limited crop rotation.” The typical pattern is an alternation between corn and soybeans in each field.  There are also some fields where the growers plant continuous corn or continuous soybeans. There are many reasons that a more “diverse crop rotation” could be a good idea.  Mixing up crop types over time can help build soil quality because of different rooting patterns or residue characteristics. Some plant pests can be more easily managed if their life cycles are disrupted by cropping changes.  All of this is well known, but for a variety of reasons that I’ll discuss below, the less diverse rotation persists.

Corn and soybeans happen to be crops which involve widespread use of biotech crop options, but there are many other farming areas with a narrow crop rotation where “GMO” options have never been available. There are areas in Northern Europe where “continuous wheat” is the norm and many premium wine regions where essentially only grapes are grown. If farmers somewhere are not using a diverse crop rotation – there is a rational explanation involving history, economics, and risk management. Continue reading.

Consumer Reports publishes unscientific analysis

Grandpa Folta liked Consumer Reports, the magazine that would help him find maximum value in his oil filters and bacon bits. They have been recognized for a long time as an objective source of critical side-by-side analysis of consumer goods, and I’ve made decisions based on their recommendations. The magazine is still popular, and is well known for its independent evaluation of consumer goods, helping the consumer make better buying decisions.

My friend Chris alerted me to a little Consumer Credulity. The latest version shows that even an source claiming objective and technically sound analysis, is not immune from the bias of bad information.  A recent article on Milk Alternatives: Should You Sip or Skip provides a short evaluation of the various consumer milk substitutes, stuff like coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk and other dairy alternatives. Continue reading.

Help Erika Bueno Fund Her Graduate Project!

Image of Apocephalus borealis, coutesy of Core et. al 2012

Image of Apocephalus borealis, coutesy of Core et. al 2012

Finding funding for some research projects is incredibly difficult, especially for newer researchers. For phenomena which have only been recently described, finding funding is even more difficult than finding funding for more established research areas. Because of this, there are a lot of labs which rely on citizen science projects or volunteer work to gather data. You have a chance to help a really cool and interesting project that can help us understand a new problem that honeybees are facing – through crowdfunding. Continue reading.