This post was originally published on GMO Answers' Medium page.
Every year I get around 90 fresh faced, anxious high school freshmen in my agriculture foundations classroom. They creep by my upper classmen in the hallway with their maps and determinedly race against the tardy bell.
Ahhh... the sweetness of ambitious ninth graders! You see my upperclassmen have long lost the rush of a new school, new teachers and a new tardy bell schedule. They have adapted into the simple flow that is a rural county high school. They flow from class to class, listening to lectures, turning in assignments (if we're lucky) and talking about the latest social gossip while trying to hide their cellphones from administrators. It's an easy pace until they arrive in the agriculture room.
I start my year by talking about solving world hunger. I talk about the population boom and then ask them a simple question, “How do we solve world hunger?"
Most classes sit in silence while waiting for me to answer my own question...but after 20-30 seconds of staring at each other, they realize I'm serious. Then they get antsy...
“Well we need more farms!”
“We can send other countries our crops!”
“We can use GMOs!”
“We can...” and as they realize that we are using all the land we have available, we do ship crops, but poor infrastructure and government corruption prevent delivery. When they realize that GMOs are just a tool in a toolbox...they grow quiet again and wait for me to answer the question.
I never do.
It is my goal for students to have a broader view of the world when they leave my classroom. It is also a goal that they leave the classroom understanding basic scientific principles that govern our world and affect our food system. Practically though, I want them to be educated citizens and consumers. We spend a lot of time in my class talking about labels and advertising. Students look for what I call “crazy labels.” Here are a few we have found—
“Gluten Free!” on a half-gallon of ice cream. (Gluten comes from wheat.)
“Made with non-GMO Ingredients!” on a bottle of ketchup. (There are no genetically modified tomatoes on the market.)
“This milk is from cows not treated with bST!” (on a jug of milk with another label saying that according to the FDA there is no significant difference in milk from cows treated with bST and those not treated.)
Each time a student finds something that concerns them we talk about the science behind it. We look at peer reviewed research and read news articles from both sides about controversial food products like AquAdvantage Salmon. The students look for framing and bias in news articles and ask questions about research. We don’t always agree in our classroom, but we always show each other respect and provide evidence during our discussions.
As we go into this new school year, I look forward to having these discussions with my freshmen. I look forward to the questions they ask and the answers they find because if they don’t ultimately learn how to ask the hard questions and persevere through the mountain of research, they won’t be able to face the hard questions their generation will have to answer.
Like how to feed a growing and very hungry world.
There are a few things that I try to focus on with my students so that their understanding grows from year to year.
1. We focus on vocabulary.
According to the Literacy Project Foundation, 50% of American’s cannot read a book written at an 8th grade reading level. We fight the literacy battle every day in school but we also fight the scientific literacy battle. Many consumers do not possess an understanding of basic scientific principals required to make simple personal decisions. As a result, consumers pay more for things labeled with misleading wording when they could buy a nutritionally equivalent alternate for cheaper.
In my class, we focus on foundational concepts—like the difference between a hybrid and genetically modified seed as well as the science behind things like heredity, cross breeding, line breeding, bST, pST and many more. I want students to understand not only the science behind farmer and producer decisions but also the financial decisions that farmers make each time they choose a product for their farm.
2. We focus on ethics.
After we have established a firm understanding of a concept, we talk about the reasons farmers and producers choose a particular product or practice for their farm and the possible ethical concerns they see for that practice. We talk about the YEARS of research that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do before bringing a product to the market. We also talk about regulation—and the USDA’s official definitions for terms like organic, natural and transgenic, and how those words affect the consumer when they make a split decision to purchase a product.
3. We talk about the media.
One question I encourage students to ask is what is this advertisement, label or sticker trying to get the consumer to do and why? I encourage students to become media literate in looking for framing, bias and emotional pleas in advertising and compare that to the science they can see actual data from.
In the end, I hope my students leave asking the hard questions and digging for the tough answers and that this prepares them for a future of conquering challenges and making this world a better place for all of us.