GENERA FAQ

Welcome to the FAQ for the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA). GENERA will be a searchable database of peer-reviewed research on the risks of genetically engineered crops. Below you can find the answers to many of your questions about GENERA, collected in the following categories:

Why create GENERA?

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.

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.

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.

We’ve designed GENERA to make studies easy to find. Click on GENERA in the menu bar at the top of any of Biofortified’s pages. All of the studies are entered by their date of publishing, so the most recent studies appear first. In the left hand sidebar you will find a specialized search section.

The studies can be browsed by the crop type (corn, apples, potatoes, etc), peer-review status, the type of study (nutritional, environmental, toxicity, etc), the country where the study was conducted, or the findings of the study (positive or negative with regard to the safety of a genetically engineered organism). Alternatively, the pulldown bars can be used to narrow any search for keywords. The keyword search can be used for the whole database if the pulldown bars are all set to ANY.

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:

  1. Citation
  2. Abstract (the summary of the research),
  3. Country where the research was conducted,
  4. Crop (maize, wheat, papaya),
  5. What commercialized events were studied (An “event” is a specific genetically engineered trait),
  6. How the research was funded,
  7. What kind of study it was (see above),
  8. Impact (a measure of how often the research is cited by other scientists),
  9. What were the findings of the study with regard to risk. Positive, negative, or neutral?

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 financially supports 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.

How do I cite GENERA?

If you use GENERA in a report or on a website, we’d appreciate a citation. This helps other people find the resource and gives credit to all the hard work that people have done to create the GENERA database and to enter studies.

Use something like this general citation when referring to all of GENERA:

Haro von Mogel, Karl and Bodnar, Anastasia. GENERA: the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas. Accessed 1 Jan 2012.

Use a citation such as this when referring to a specific GENERA entry (the title and author can be found at the top of each entry):

Tribe, David. 12 year study of transgenic apple trees exhibiting stable characteristics and no unexpected alterations. Haro von Mogel, Karl and Bodnar, Anastasia (editors). GENERA: the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas. Accessed 1 Jan 2012.

For more information

If you know of a study that we’ve missed, whether it shows GMOs to be safe or not, please provide a link or citation in the appropriate section of the Biofortified Forum. We’d like to be as through as possible. Thanks in advance for your assistance in compiling this resource. Also, if you’d like to start a discussion about any of the studies in GENERA, the Forum is a great place to go.

Another resource where you can find peer-reviewed GMO risk assessments is the Bibliography Database maintained by the Center for Environmental Risk Assessment, part of the International Life Sciences Institute.

Finally, we have a primer on evaluating bias which links to some additional resources.

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