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Topics covered in this program include drought, loss of topsoil, water pollution, misuse of chemical and pesticides, and loss of farmland to urbanization. The Land of Plenty, Land of Want Lesson Plan explores these issues in more detail.


As the population of Planet Earth continues to grow, it is necessary to understand the delicate balance that is needed to preserve the environment while feeding the world's inhabitants. Students will see in the upcoming video segments the need to find ways to reconcile economic growth with the continued health of the land. As cities have expanded, farmland has been lost to development. In an effort to feed the ever-increasing population of the planet, farmers have experimented with various methods of increasing agricultural yields. Some of these methods, over time, have proven to be unhealthy for the environment. Now, more than ever before, it is critical that farmers and scientists work together to develop a sustainable agricultural system through the effective management of Earth's natural resources. Sustainable agriculture is the use of farming practices that will produce food for consumption without causing harm to the environment.

This lesson on sustainable agriculture gives students the opportunity to view farming in four distinctly different countries: Zimbabwe, France, China, and the United States. This approach to viewing farming methods throughout the world and the different challenges facing the world's farmers allows the students to appreciate the commonality of all farmers. They all live on a thin edge: vulnerable to the natural forces of weather, climate, and changing soil conditions, as well as the people-imposed forces of pollution, population shifts, and political intervention.

National Science Education Standards: Grades 5-8

This lesson correlates to the following content standards:

Content Standard C — Life Science
Regulation and Behavior
Population and Ecosystems
Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms

Content Standard D — Earth and Space Science
Structure of the Earth System
Earth's History
Earth in the Solar System

Content Standard E — Science and Technology
Understanding about Science and Technology

Content Standard F — Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Population Resources and Environment
Natural Hazards
Risks and Benefits

Content Standard G — History and Nature of Science
Science and a Human Endeavor

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
  • define sustainable agriculture
  • identify problems faced in sustainable agriculture and offer possible solutions
Previewing Activities

(Note: The teacher will need to take some time to introduce and discuss the concepts and vocabulary with the students before proceeding with the rest of the lesson.)

1. To familiarize students with the areas in the program segments, use a wall map, desk map, or an atlas, and have students locate:
  1. Zimbabwe, France, and China
  2. Pennsylvania and Iowa

After the students have found each of these, begin a discussion on what they know already about these places. Ask them what environmental concerns they think farmers from these different nations might have in common and what might be unique to each.

2. Have students name agricultural products they use on a daily basis and discuss where these products might originate.

3. Introduce the following key terms to the students:

  1. agriculture – the science, art, and business of farming
  2. arable land – land fit to be cultivated or farmed
  3. contour farming – farming sloping land in such a way that preparing the land, planting, and cultivating the crop results in a series of furrows and/or ridges which are "on the level" or contour and reduce soil erosion.
  4. drought – a long period of abnormally low rainfall
  5. El Nino – a warming of the ocean surface off the western coast of South America, occurring every four to twelve years, and affecting weather worldwide
  6. erosion – process whereby materials of the Earth's crust are loosened, dissolved, or worn away and moved, usually by water or wind.
  7. industrialization – the development of manufacturing enterprises
  8. no-till farming – instead of plowing the land, the farmer plants a cover crop that is rolled onto the land to protect it from the elements.
  9. pesticides – chemicals used to kill pests, especially insects
  10. pollution runoff – an overflow of fluid not absorbed by the soil which contains waste products and other contaminates
  11. population shift – the migration or movement of people from one country or region in order to settle in another
  12. sustainability – the ability to keep in existence, maintain
  13. topsoil – the upper few inches of the soil in which worms, beneficial bacteria, and humus can be found.
  14. toxic waste – poisonous byproducts resulting from industrial processes, as well as organic waste from animal farms
  15. urbanization – the movement of population toward a city

4. Student Discussion
Define sustainable agriculture for the students. (Sustainable agriculture is the use of farming practices that will produce food for human or animal consumption without causing harm to the environment.) Then have students relate the importance of sustainable agriculture to their own lives by discussing the following questions: What did you eat yesterday? Did you grow any of this food yourself? What will you eat tomorrow? Where will this food come from? What could cause there to be no food at your grocery store or at your favorite fast-food restaurant? Consider the role that farmers play in your life.

Focus for Viewing

Say . . . "As you watch the following video excerpts, look for examples of drought and erosion, misuse of pesticides, pollution, and loss of farmland to urbanization. The video excerpts will illustrate examples of these problems as they affect sustainable agriculture and will offer possible solutions."

Viewing Activities

The following viewing activities offer opportunities for student discussion of the problems and possible solutions of sustainable agriculture. The topics in these activities could be covered in one lesson or extended into several lessons. There are a variety of topics that may spark student interests throughout the video segments. Feel free to offer expanded explanations and to encourage students to research and explore specific areas according to their interests.

Topics: Drought and Loss of Topsoil
Say . . . "We are going to look at the country of Zimbabwe, which is located in southern Africa. The people of Zimbabwe are in the midst of a terrible drought, which threatens the sustainability of their farmland and of their very existence. As you watch this section of the video, think about possible solutions to this problem."

View Segment One: length 3 minutes and 43 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start after the program title appears on the screen and you hear "In a remote corner of Zimbabwe, in southern Africa . . . ."  Stop when you hear "It's a vivid reminder of just how vulnerable the land is to human pressure.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. What elements in nature make farming in Zimbabwe more difficult? (Examples include environmental disasters, weather conditions, climate. Students may also want to discuss the effects of El Nino).
  2. How do you think drought might affect the price of agricultural products in our area? (Students may want to use the Internet to research answers. Have them search under "drought.")

Say . . . "Now we are going to look at one solution to the problem of drought in Zimbabwe."

View Segment Two: length 57 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a man chopping wood against a sunset and hear "Fortunately others are taking the battle for survival into their own hands." Stop when you hear "David Jura's dam has bettered the lives of thousands of people.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. How did David Jura take the battle for agricultural survival/sustainability into his own hands? (Answer: David built a dam.)
  2. What effects do you think David's solution may have had on people living downstream? (student discussion)
  3. If you have a stream on your own property, can you build a dam to create a reservoir? Why or why not? (Note: Following this classroom discussion, students could do further research on the topic of dams by studying the dam projects on the Colorado River and the effects the projects have had on Mexico.)

Say . . . "Another problem caused by nature that threatens sustainable agriculture is the loss of topsoil due to erosion. What are some of the causes of soil erosion?" (Give the students some background information on the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.) Then say, "Now let's look at the loss of topsoil in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania."

View Segment Three: length: 53 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a man driving a tractor across a dry, dusty field and hear "But reminiscent of the Dust Bowl days . . . ."  Stop when you hear "The rest lies somewhere on the bottom of the Susquehanna River or the Chesapeake Bay.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. Can you think of other examples of soil erosion near your home or in your community? What could be done to address this problem? (Answers will vary.)

Say . . . "This next section of the video shows one Lancaster County, Pennsylvania farmer's solution to the loss of topsoil on his family's farm."

View Segment Four: length 2 minutes and 6 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a farmer on a tractor coming straight towards you head on and hear "The devastating cycle of topsoil loss does not exist on the Groff farm." Stop when you hear "And we've been able to consistently get increased yields ever since we've been able to do this.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. What was the method that Steve Groff found to be successful in reducing the loss of topsoil on his farm?" (Answer: no-till farming)
  2. What are some other benefits that resulted from Steve Groff's sustainable agricultural system? (Answers: reduced use of insecticides and fungicides; consistently increased yields.)
  3. How has modernized farm machinery aided farmers in new farming methods? (Have students research information about new farm machinery.)

Topics: Pollution and Misuse of Chemicals and Pesticides
Say . . . "It is also important to look at the effects of chemicals and animal waste pollutants in an agricultural system. Next we are going to travel to Brittany, France's most intensive agricultural area. Here we will see how farmers are working to increase their agricultural yields. We will also look at another problem for which we continue to seek solutions — the enormous amount of waste produced in animal farming."

View Segment Five: length: 1 minute and 35 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a tractor crossing a field and a girl is riding on its back and you hear "This is the nation's most intensive agricultural area." Stop when you hear ". . . enormous amounts of toxic waste which too often spill into already contaminated aquifers and streams.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. Other areas of the world also face pollution runoff, not just from chemicals, but from toxic waste produced by animal farms. Again, pollution is a problem for which we seek solutions. What are some of the reasons we use chemicals in the production of agricultural products?" (Answers: increased yields and more efficient production)
  2. Is it always better to have more without considering the other costs? (student discussion)
  3. Animal waste pollution in agricultural production is becoming a real problem, a problem for which we have not yet found a solution. What are some ways you think we can solve this problem?" (Student answers will vary.)

Say . . "Although there are no clear cut answers for reducing animal waste pollution, farmers are finding ways to control the use of chemicals and herbicides. Let's visit Joe Horan in Iowa and see his solution to using chemicals while preserving the environment and safeguarding the region's economy."

View Segment Six: length 40 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a man in sunglasses driving a combine and hear "Joe Horan's on-board computer is linked to the satellites above." Stop when you hear "We try to be as good stewards of the soil as we can be.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. What method did Joe Horan use to know exactly when and where to apply chemicals? (Answer: precision farming)
  2. How has technology helped to improve agricultural production? (Answer: Through the use of computers and satellites, farmers are better equipped to anticipate weather conditions and improve production.)
  3. What problems have chemicals and other farm pollutants caused to our soil, air, and water? (Answers will vary.)

Say . . . "As we look at the problems we face in sustaining agriculture around the world, the final problem we will explore is the loss of farmland due to urbanization."

Topic: Loss of Farmland Due to Urbanization
Say . . . "Industry is growing at a rapid pace in China today. However, this industrial growth, and its resulting prosperity, comes at a high cost as we will see in this video excerpt."

View Segment Seven: length 1 minute and 20 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Start when you see men unloading sacks off a boat and hear "Thousands of arable acres are being destroyed in the name of progress." Stop when you hear "They are now home to dozens of small and medium-sized industrial enterprises." )

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. In China, how has booming industrial growth resulted in the loss of land for farming? (Answer: Growing industries are taking over land previously available for farming.)
  2. Why do you think China has chosen industrial growth over agricultural production? (Answers will vary.)
  3. What other countries do you think are facing this same problem? (student discussion)
  4. There are a shrinking number of farmers in the United States today. At the start of this century, farmers made up nearly 35 percent of the total population. Today, fewer than two percent of American families work the land. How can this impact food production and development in your community? (student discussion)
Special Projects

1. To better understand the effects of environmental catastrophes, have students study the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s in the United States for the effects this disaster had not only on the land but also on the lives of the people involved. One place for students to start their research is by visiting two Internet sites on this topic: The Great Plains Dust Bowl Page ( and The American Experience: Surviving the Dust Bowl (

2. Arrange for guest speakers from the industrial and farming communities to come and present information to the class about how they are balancing economic growth with the health of the land. Work with students to develop a list of questions for the speakers prior to their presentations. Contact your local Chamber of Commerce, county extension office, or state agriculture department to arrange for speakers.

3. In order to find out long-range plans (agricultural and industrial) for your community, contact your local government's planning commission.

4. Have students research various methods of farming such as no-till and contour. When their research is completed, have them chart the benefits of each method and decide which one they would use if they had a farm. The class could also debate which method is better.

5. Have students research various methods of irrigation necessary for agricultural production throughout the world. How can the method of irrigation impact the type of crop produced?

6. Have students research the major imports/exports of four countries and graph the results for comparison and analysis.

7. Have students find out what agricultural products are produced locally and if any of these products are exported. Discuss the need for local agricultural imports.

8. Have students discuss how industrial growth has affected local agricultural production and how they can take a part in helping to balance the agricultural and industrial growth locally? Students may want to contact their local Chamber of Commerce.

9. Have students research the evolution of farming techniques and compare and graph differences in yields over time. This is a comprehensive project and could lead to a research paper with an interdisciplinary focus involving both science and social studies.


Internet Sites

Agriculture for Kids
This site, under the name Sci4Kids, is a series of stories about what scientists do at the Agricultural Research Service. The page entitled "Play Move the Cow Space-Age Style" ( explores how technology is helping farmers to protect the environment. The site is geared toward students eight to thirteen.

Agriculture in the Classroom
As the number of children living on farms and ranches decreases, it becomes more important than ever that students learn about our food and fiber systems through classroom curriculum. The "Ag in the Classroom" program offers teachers educational materials to integrate into their classroom lessons.

The American Experience: Surviving the Dust Bowl
This Web site contains an eyewitness account of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, New Deal remedies and a teachers guide.

Crop Production
Farmland Cooperative System is a highly diversified company with major business lines that include crop production. This Web site contains information about the production, processing, and marketing of agricultural products.

El Niño
Created by the producers of the PBS series NOVA, this Web site is entirely devoted to this weather phenomenon. Sections of the site include "Dissecting El Niño" to "Chasing El Niño."

Exploring the Environment Home Page
This page links to NASA's Classroom of the Future, the Middle School Earth Science Explorer, and other NASA links. It offers students an opportunity to examine Experimental Earth Science modules that make use of remote sensing technology and the Internet. Modules include the "Temperate Rainforest," "Water Quality," and "El Nino."

The GLOBE Program
The GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) is a hands-on environment science and education program that unites students, educators, and scientists from around the world in studying the global environment. The GLOBE teachers guide focuses on topics discussed in this lesson like soil, water and global positioning system technology.

The Great Plains Dust Bowl Page
This introduction to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s on the southern plains of the United States also includes a movie of a dust storm during that era.

Making Sense of the Weather—El Nino
This explanation of El Nino and La Nino from NASA is geared to students in grades 6-12. The site also features weather-related science activities.

Sustainable Agriculture Network
The Sustainable Agriculture Network is the communications and outreach arm of the Sustainable Agriculture and Research and Education (SARE) program. SARE works to increase knowledge about practices that are economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially responsible. The online brochure, "Exploring Sustainability in Agriculture," offers a comprehensive explanation about sustainable agriculture.


Lambert, Mark. "Farming and the Environment." Steck-Vaughn,1991.

Postel, S. "Dividing the Waters: Food Security, Ecosystem Health, and the New Politics of Scarcity." Worldwatch Institute,1996.

Sinclaie, Patti (ed.). "E for Environment: An Annotated Bibliography of Children's Books with Environmental Themes." Bowker,1992.

Walters, Charles and Fenzau, C.J. "Eco Farm: An Acres U.S.A. Primer." Amazon.Com, 1996.


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