This page is the future home of the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas, or GENERA. The goal of this project is to build a searchable database of peer-reviewed research on the relative risks of genetically engineered crops that includes important details at-a-glance. This project, while conceived and planned over several years, officially launched in the Fall of 2012. Find out more about the project below, and be sure to check The Biofortified Blog for updates and announcements. When the Atlas is complete enough to be posted to the web, this page will be the gateway into the Atlas.
One of the biggest challenges of accurately communicating scientific information about a controversial topic is making that information readily accessible to the public. On the topic of agricultural biotechnology, public perception is that there is little independent research on risks, yet the scientific literature is replete with studies addressing those very questions. There are several barriers to making this information accessible to the public, and we believe that this project can help address these issues.
Scientists and students at academic institutions have access to peer-reviewed journals around the world, which is where the research is published. However, most people do not have free access to these journals, and the research papers themselves are dense and often difficult to understand. Even for scientists with experience in the field it can be difficult to find all of the research that has been published on a topic. Conversely, there are many websites that discuss these issues in way that is easy to understand, but suffer from issues of accuracy and independence, and may be too narrow in scope to give people the overall picture.
The goal of GENERA is to bridge this gap by providing an all-in-one place where the information contained in the scientific literature can be found and understood at-a-glance. There are real risks involved in biotechnology, but those risks need to be put in context with the risks of plant breeding and agriculture, as well as the kinds of risks that people take every day. GENERA can be the start of this risk analysis process for anyone.
What studies will be included in GENERA
The GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas will include peer reviewed studies related to several different aspects of genetically engineered crops. Usually, studies focus on one particular aspect, such as the impact of the new trait on the environment, or how it changes (or does not change) the composition of foods. Additionally, whenever you introduce a gene through genetic engineering or breeding you can alter how the network of genes in the plant function. The goal of the Atlas is to include studies that are relevant to these and other potential impacts of genetically engineered crops, in the following categories:
- basic genetics
- biochemical analysis
- feeding study
- environmental impact
- nutritional impact
- review study (reviews summarize many studies together)
- socioeconomic impact
Peer review is a form of quality-control for scientific research. Before a study is published, it is sent to anonymous experts in the specific area that the research covers, and they evaluate the methods, data, and conclusions of the paper and determine if it was well-conducted. You can read more about peer review in this series of articles at Nature, a top peer-reviewed journal. While standards at each journal are different, and improvements can be made, it remains the best system that we have to separate facts from myths when understanding the world. For this reason, GENERA will first only include studies that have been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal. Once these studies have been entered, we may consider adding non-peer-reviewed studies that are widely discussed on a case-by-case basis, and their publication status will clearly be indicated.
How we will build GENERA
Work on building the Atlas has already begun. For years, we have maintained a list of studies that touch on the different aspects of risk encountered with genetically engineered crops, which numbered in the hundreds. After some searching, we now have about 600 studies in our list. You can see this list here, and if there are studies that you believe are missing from this list, please let us know by submitting them here.
The GENERA project will be built in three phases.
Phase 1 will involve collecting, categorizing, and analyzing each study in our list, and building the website interface that will allow users to read, search, and examine the contents of the Atlas. The following are the details that we plan to include for each study:
- Abstract (the summary of the research),
- Country where the research was conducted,
- Crop (maize, wheat, papaya),
- What commercialized events were studied (An “event” is a specific genetically engineered trait),
- How the research was funded,
- What kind of study it was (see above),
- Impact (a measure of how often the research is cited by other scientists),
- What were the findings of the study with regard to risk. Positive, negative, or neutral?
- A PDF file of the study if it is published in an Open Access journal, or if permission is obtained.
Each entry will also contain links to the page on the publisher’s website where the research paper and its supporting materials can be found. If you have suggestions or requests for details that you think we should include in the Atlas, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
We intend to also make it possible to look at many studies at once by allowing users to design their own graphs and summaries based on the contents of the Atlas. The contents of the entire Atlas will also be downloadable in different forms for scientists and others to perform their own analyses.
Phase 2 will be to develop plain-language summaries and web features to more adequately explain and synthesize the information contained in the research covered by the Atlas. We may develop resources such as classroom materials and course modules for instructors, info graphics, and review articles.
Phase 3 will involve maintaining the Atlas and above descriptions by adding new studies as they are published, and promoting the Atlas. While all three phases will involve some promotion of this project, this will be a primary focus of the third phase. Since GENERA is intended to be a living resource, once it reaches Phase 3 it will remain in this phase in perpetuity and will continually be added to.
Who is GENERA for?
Ideally, the information contained in the Atlas will be useful for everyone. In particular, we intend to reach science writers and journalists who need access to factual unbiased information. We also intend to reach policy makers, consumers and scientists who have an interest in this questions. The chances are if you are reading this, GENERA is for you!
Biology Fortified, Inc.’s mission is to educate and foster discussion about issues in biology such as genetic engineering in agriculture. To help people understand the contents of the Atlas, we intend to make it easy for users to start discussions about each study in the Atlas in the Biofortified Forum.
Who is supporting GENERA?
It takes a lot of time and expertise to build a project of this scale from the ground-up. We have had help from volunteers who have helped us find studies to be included in the Atlas, and looking up some of the details about these studies. The American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) Educational Foundation has generously awarded a competitive grant in the summer of 2012 to start the project. Find out more on our financial information page.
Since it is Biology Fortified, Inc.’s policy not to accept funding from companies with a vested interest in these issues, it is important that we obtain financial support from foundations, neutral non-profit organizations, and individual people who can see the long-term value that this project will bring. To maintain the independence of this project, financial supporters do not have editorial oversight of the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas. Editorial decisions are made solely by the editors and board of directors of Biology Fortified, Inc.