Biologists have used genetic engineering since the 1980s in crop plants to alter characteristics such as; higher vitamin content, longer shelf life and resistance to diseases.
The only characteristics that have been introduced through genetic engineering into commercial use are those that confer insect resistance and herbicide resistance which were available in fewer than 10 crop species by 2015 (according to Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources authoring committee).
Claims and research that extol both the benefits of and risks posed by GE crops and food have created a confusing landscape for the public and policy makers.
Emerging genetic engineering technologies have over the years been subjected to assessment to ascertain what technical and regulatory challenges they may present and how they might contribute to future crop improvement.
Scientist Parminder Virk of the International Rice Research Institute scientist holding sample of GMO Golden Rice
Notwithstanding the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects in health or the environment, various studies have found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engineered crop and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops.
For instance, insect-resistant GE crops contain genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium that gives crops a built-in insecticide.
Plants with this characteristic can kill targeted insects that ingest them. Besides, the insects have been slow to evolve resistance to Bt. Protein.
The Nobel Laureate letter campaign was organized by Richard Roberts and Phillip Sharp (pictured above), winners of The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1993 for their discovery of “split genes”. Photo: http://news.mit.edu/2013/kendall-square-birthplace-of-biotech-0319 Photo: M. Scott Brauer
Again, Bt. in maize and cotton contributed to a reduction in crop losses from 1996 to 2015, under circumstances where targeted insect pests caused substantial damage to non-Bt varieties and synthetic chemicals could not provide practical control.
Yet the planting of Bt. Crops tended to result in higher insect biodiversity than planting similar varieties without the Bt. Trait and using synthetic insecticides.
There are great concerns that the consumption of GE foods may lead to higher incidence of various health conditions which include; gastrointestinal tract illness, cancer, obesity, kidney disease, autism spectrum allergies and others.
Epidemiological data examined over time from United States and Canada where GE food has been consumed since the late 1990s, and similar those from the United Kingdom and Western Europe where GE food is not widely consumed showed no difference in specific health problems after the introduction of GE foods.