Lesson PlansBack to lesson plans archive January 2, 2007
Genetically Modified Foods: From The Lab to The Dinner Table
One 90-minute period with options to extend
Students will be able to
- Explain what genetically modified foods are and how they are created.
- Use appropriate vocabulary to describe and effectively discuss the benefits of, and potential risks of, genetically modified foods.
- Identify foods that they consume or encounter that do or likely contain genetically modified organisms and those that do not.
- Discuss critically some of the issues that surround the GMO debate to include: globalization, safety, labeling, and impact on family farms.
GMOs are genetically modified organisms. These organisms have, in some way, had their genome altered (the “genome” is the total of all the genes in an organism of a specific species).
The creation of GMOs involves using recombinant technology to place genes from one organism into another of a different species to confer some trait. For example, Monsanto Company has placed a gene from a soil bacterium into the genome of a potato plant, giving the potato plant resistance to a common pest, the Colorado Potato Beetle. These potatoes are now commercially grown in the U.S. The pesticide that used to be sprayed on the potatoes to fight the beetle is no longer necessary.
The U.S. is the primary producer of GMO foods in the world. GMOs are often referred to correctly as “transgenic organisms” and “genetically engineered organisms.” In addition to plants, many types of bacteria and animals have all been genetically engineered. Bacteria are used to produce human protein, such as insulin, through the insertion of the human gene into their genome. Additionally, goats have been engineered to produce valuable human protein in their milk and pigs to produce hemoglobin in large quantities in their blood.
For an excellent summary of GMOs and the pros and cons of this technology, visit the following Web site from the Department of Energy: Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms
This lesson is designed to expose students to the various issues surrounding GMO foods and to help them understand the complexity of the issues surrounding the biotechnology movement. Students will read aloud from two NewsHour pieces, both of which involve a variety of perspectives surrounding the GMO issue. Additionally, students will try to identify GMO foods that they have consumed and discuss the “to label or not to label” debate. At home students will be surveying family and/or peers and attempting to identify GMOs they consume on a daily basis. The article entitled “Food Crisis in Zambia” will bring a more global understanding to the issue of GMOs and will get students thinking about biotechnology, globalization and ethics.
Extension activities further explore the ethical issues surrounding GMOs, allow students to participate in government by petitioning their congressmen and congresswomen and give them an opportunity to look at biotech information from opposing interests.
All of these activities are designed to be used individually, and accordingly can be used piecemeal and in any particular order.
(20 Minutes – 10 minutes per piece)
Students chosen by the instructor or student volunteers take on the roles of those individuals in the two Newsier pieces entitled “High Tech Food” and “Seeding the Future,”
Have the students sit in front of the class and go through the piece, acting as the interviewer and the interviewees. This could be given to the students a day or two prior to the presentation, giving them a chance to read over and highlight their parts and understand the context of their roles. This can be made more exciting for the students by acquiring a few items, such as a microphone, a lab coat, overalls etc., for the readers.
As students are reading through the interview, have the students listening jot down words and phrases with which they are unfamiliar. These can be used as a discussion piece later.
This activity and both of these articles do an excellent job of presenting to students the many perspectives on the GMO food debate. This activity could be used to introduce the topic or to kickoff a class discussion or a more formal debate.
Here are the cast of characters for “High Tech Food”
- Announcer/Spokesman: Reads all non-specific text and part of Ray Suarez
- Paul Solman: WGBH Business Correspondent (main speaking role)
- Andrew Waber: Pioneer Hi-Bred Representative
- Peg Armstrong-Gustafson: Pioneer Hi-Bred Representative
- Sue Roberts: Nutrition Consultant
- George Naylor: Farmer
- Neil Hamilton: Agricultural Law Professor, Drake University
- Robert Shapiro: Monsanto CEO
- Dermont Hayes: Economist, Iowa State University
Here are the cast of characters for “Seeding the Future.”
- Announcer/Spokesman: Introduces the piece and reads abstract
- Tom Bearden: Correspondent (main speaking role)
- Tim Hume: Farmer
- John Losey: Cornell University
- Val Giddings: Biotechnology Industry Organization
- Jane Rissler: Union of Concerned Scientists
- Dan Peters: Farmer
Activity II: Group Brainstorming and Reporting Out
(15 – 20 minutes)
Following the readings, students should work in groups of 2 or 3. Outfit each group with large sheets of construction or other paper and markers. This activity will act to assure that students all understand exactly what a GMO is and as well ask them to revisit the NewsHour pieces they just heard and pick out the salient arguments behind each perspective. Instructors could provide each group with a printed copy of the pieces.
In groups of 2 or 3, students will complete 2 brief activities:
#1. Each group must produce a list of the steps a biotechnologist would need to conduct in order to create a GMO. You could use corn or soybeans as a concrete example.
#2. Each group must generate a list of the benefits and potential risks of GMO foods to farmers, consumers and the environment. They could place these into a simple table.
Engage in a classroom discussion, asking students from each group to report out until it is clear that all students understand how GMOs are generated in the laboratory and all benefits and risks have been explored and topics exhausted. This is very open ended. If they arise, you may want to forgo more ethical discussions to include in Activity III.
Activity III: Global Ethics and Classroom Discussion
(10 – 15 minutes)
The following article entitled “Food Crisis in Zambia” from the NewsHour Extra Web site is a great article to jump-start discussions that bring together biotechnology, globalization and ethics. Here is an excerpt from the article. This is a short article which can be quickly read in class. Students will be excited to speak up about the issues raised in this article.
“The debate within the country cuts across political and class lines. Refusing GM foods was popular with the urban elite who saw the issue as a test of national strength. Hungry villagers, however, wanted the food aid, but lacked the political power to accomplish this goal, according to foreign diplomats in the country.”
Activity IV – follow-up #1 (homework)
Challenge the students to bring to the next class a product from their home or grocery store that contains GMOs, and information to back up their claim. Alternatively, and a much easier assignment, you could challenge the students to arrive at the next class with foods they know do not have any GMOs. The class could also be split down the middle. It will make for interesting and engaging discussion and will make the issues real to the students. It should be surprising that it is so difficult to discover whether foods have GMOs, but simple to determine that they do not contain any.
The following is a Web site that lists many of the foods we find on our shelves and which of these contain GMOs. You can decide whether or not to share this Web site with them when you give the assignment. True Food Shopping Guide Either way, students will be amazed at the number of foods they eat regularly that contain GMOs (even baby food!).
Activity V – follow-up #2 (homework)
Have students poll their families and friends regarding GMOs and their consumption of GMOs. You can use the poll questions below or preferably generate the questions as a class. Each student should poll 3-5 other people and tally results in class.
- Do you know what a GMO (genetically modified organism) is?
- Have you consumed any GMO foods in the past week? If so, how many (times)?
- Do you think the government should require genetically modified foods to be labeled as such?
Extension Activity 1
A week prior to the classroom discussion have students find articles online about transgenic plants and animals. There are literally hundreds out there. Having the students highlight words in the article they are unfamiliar with can help you assess the class’ understanding.
I encourage my students to find short articles that bring up ethical issues or that are intrinsically interesting, like articles about glowing bunny rabbits and goats that produce spider silk in their milk. Collect the articles, sort through them and pick a few that best lend themselves to an effective classroom discussion.
Copy the selected articles and place them into folders. I use 13 folders, each with about 8 short articles. Place the folders around the room. Students can peruse the articles so that there is a common vocabulary and background for an effective classroom discussion. This discussion can be used not only to discuss the ethical implications of the new technology but also to work out any misunderstanding students might still have.
Extension Activity 2
At the following Web site students will find form letters and petitions and easy ways to get their message to others about labeling genetically modified foods. You may find that some students want to take further action regarding GMOs and labeling. The Campaign
Extension Activity 3
This activity is designed to get the students thinking critically about companies and propaganda. The two sites below have very different viewpoints of GMO foods and both have very different interests in the success or failure of this new technology. In addition to working from these two sites, encourage students to find other sites that could serve as similar examples.
Have students, working in pairs, visit the Web sites below and
- summarize the attitude towards GMO foods presented by the company
- discuss the economic and social impact GMO foods have/could have on the company
Extension Activity 4
The fourth section of the book “The Botany of Desire” is dedicated to the history of the potato plant, its impact on history and as much to the production of the NewLeaf potato plant, a GMO plant that has been modified to be resistant to the Colorado Potato Beetle. The author visits the Monsanto laboratories and explains how these plants are produced in a lab. He grows that plant himself and compares their progress in his garden to his unmodified plants and finally he visits farmers in Idaho being affected by the move to GMO potatoes. You could attempt to read the entire chapter to your students which would take a significant amount of time, or read only those sections dedicated to the new leafs. The section in which he visits the Monsanto labs provides a good picture of how biotech companies develop such GMOs.
Christopher Charnitski is a national board certified biology teacher and has been teaching in Fairfax County, Virginia for 8 years. He is currently teaching at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Chris has presented at conferences nationally and internationally and consulted for the Bethesda Academy for the Performing Arts.
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