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
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
Activity I: (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
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
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
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
1. Do you know what a GMO (genetically modified organism)
2. Have you consumed any GMO foods in the past week?
If so, how many (times)?
3. 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
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
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
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
1. summarize the attitude towards GMO foods presented by
2. discuss the economic and social impact GMO foods have/could
have on the
Foods Markets -- Issues
-- Conversations about Plant Biotechnology
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