FDA aims to combat GMO misinformation with crop biotech high-school curriculum

Credit: FDA
Credit: FDA
Though a new curriculum guide offers high school teachers helpful tools for navigating the complexities of crop biotechnology and a way to build bridges to relevant disciplines beyond the sciences, it uses confusing terminology around gene editing and overstates the positive role played by the United States in global agriculture.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its new supplementary curriculum, Science and Our Food Supply: Exploring Food Agriculture and Biotechnology – Teacher’s Guide for High School Classrooms, with the goal of getting accurate information about agricultural biotechnology in front of teens. It’s part of a biotech outreach program mandated and funded by Congress.

Credit: FDA

A parallel consumer-focused education initiative “Feed Your Mind” launched earlier this year. “Feed Your Mind” aims to help consumers better understand genetically engineered foods, commonly called GMOs or genetically modified organisms.  Additional consumer education materials will be released soon.

The guide’s lesson plans and resources aim to help high school students understand the science behind genetically engineered plants and how biotechnology is used to produce food for humans and animals. The lesson plans, which are based on guidance from federal agencies and other experts in the field, were classroom tested and link to numerous education standards. A companion middle school version is in final review and is expected to be available soon.

Overall, the curriculum presents many components that are likely to provide utility for high school teachers grappling with educating students about this controversial topic. They will likely appreciate the factual approach of the free, 120-page teaching guide, which presents scientific concepts relevant to modern agriculture.

The material is presented across five learning modules that cover topics ranging from DNA extraction and selective breeding to environmental factors affecting our food supply and nutrition. It also discusses the US regulatory process for genetically engineered products, including labelling requirements.

Each module includes background information, links to online relevant video content, sample milestones and key events for context, discussion topics, active-learning activities, assessment, and opportunities for extension. Modules can be taught as stand-alone or in a series. Capstone projects for optional evaluation, a credible source guide, a glossary, and a poster/infographic rubric complete the guide. The curriculum has been correlated to multiple sets of U.S. learning standards including the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core.

Given the current demand for virtual learning, the FDA curriculum is particularly valuable in terms of affording teacher flexibility across learning modalities. An example is Module 3, Environmental Factors. One can imagine students encountering the curriculum’s background information, “A Growing Food Challenge,” from a variety of in-person or virtual learning modalities, such as reading the material independently offline, receiving a teacher lecture in a live or pre-recorded format, or engaging with peers in threaded e-discussion of the material before class.

Keywords such as “integrated pest management” and “risk quotient” are pulled out of the text in bold, facilitating use of digital flashcards or other remote learning tools.

A text inset calls out the International Survey of Weed Resistance and website, opening the door to relevant dialogue with a remote guest speaker.  Online videos such as “Agriculture – Environmental Science (Bozeman Science)” could be viewed in synchronous or asynchronous sessions, in full group or in breakout.  Subtitles are available if the learner needs to turn off sound. For the “Agricultural Pests” activity, the student procedures are listed in eight steps, enabling them to conduct the activity offline with reduced teacher preparation. A list of additional resources at the end of the module could be assigned for multiple follow-on activities or explorations.

Critique

The FDA has met its stated objective to provide “a useful guide for learning key science concepts about food agriculture and increasing awareness of modern food choices.”  But those who plan to use this resource should think about the following two issues and how to deal with them when deploying the materials.

First, the curriculum misses the opportunity to make genetic engineering (GE) fully distinct from gene editing in the terminology. The document makes clear the concept of genetic engineering and gene editing in relationship to the continuum of technologies and techniques used to provide beneficial crop varieties. But it should be noted that since the advent of gene editing, scientific communities have expressed the need to disambiguate the term genetic engineering (GE) from gene editing, as both could be abbreviated as “GE.”  The curriculum leaves the door open for students to confuse the abbreviation of one for the other. When introducing biotechnological concepts to students with limited knowledge in the field, it would be worthwhile to point preemptively to the convention of using the abbreviation GE for genetic engineering, but not for gene editing. This clarity could be accomplished by delineating the two in a sidebar, explaining that with the nature of technology constantly changing and improving, genetic engineering was introduced as a technology first, and bears the acronym GE. Gene editing can’t take on the abbreviation too, or things get confusing.

Related article:  Global crop yields projected to drop as temperatures rise, new study finds
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Second, the curriculum’s implicit positioning of the role of the United States in global agriculture could be interpreted by some as overly promotional, particularly in the module on food supply. The content promotes American ingenuity in producing the first successful GE organism and highlights that applications of agricultural biotechnology yield enhanced nutrient availability, emphasizing the scientific consensus that food from consumer-available GE plant varieties are safe. The bulk of information the curriculum presents on global food supply focuses on hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Unacknowledged is the role of the US among industrialized nations in contributing to the anthropogenic climate changes that necessitate the uptake of biotechnologies for food security in these geographies. Yet there is scientific consensus here, too, in that climate-warming trends and associated shifts over the past century are due to human activity. Teaching students that the US produces solutions for global food supply — without the context that US activity contributes to the environmental problems to which such solutions are applied — may present too incomplete a picture. Students should have a more balanced scientific framing of the effects of US activities on the global food supply and a more complete presentation of why agricultural biotechnology is needed. An introduction on the relationship between US agriculture and climate change could help to resolve the imbalance.

Ways to expand the curriculum

One of the lessons of science communication is that science does not live in isolation. A logical application for the first edition of Exploring Food Agriculture and Biotechnology is as a tool for building bridges between the scientific concepts and the relevant, non-scientific disciplines. The authors have laid a foundation for interdisciplinary connection by identifying corresponding opportunities for skill-building in social studies, health, math, agriculture, family and consumer science, and English language arts. State-level departments of education and curriculum teams should now mine the Exploring Food Agriculture and Biotechnology curriculum for ways to match priority standards in each of these other disciplines with learning opportunities presented in the guide.

The curriculum’s opportunities for extension are a start, but these originate from a mostly science-based perspective. Deep learning connections to complementary disciplines have not been fully explored. When disseminating news about the availability of the curriculum, the FDA should not limit its outreach to teacher organizations focused on science. Outreach should promote the curriculum to teacher organizations in non-scientific disciplines, too.  One avenue could be connecting with the National Council of Teachers of English, whose teacher membership is already teaching the common core ELA learning standards referenced by the FDA’s Exploring Food Agriculture and Biotechnology Curriculum. There are comparable opportunities with teacher associations in each of the relevant disciplines, including National Council for the Social Studies, the Society of Health and Physical Educators and others. The FDA’s direct encouragement in the curriculum for students to expand the biotechnology conversion with their families, friends and others can be enhanced through expanding the learning interdisciplinarily.

The risk in not taking these next steps is that the guide’s valuable thoughts on how to make the science relevant to other aspects of student experience will be missed. The stakes for public consensus on how society will utilize these technologies — as evidenced by the FDA’s investment in creating an extensive curricular resource on these topics —  are too high to fail to continue to expand the learning.

Vanessa Greenlee is the Deputy Director of the Cornell Alliance for Science. Find Vanessa on Twitter @greenleevanessa

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and has been reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly 

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