The Issue: Genetically Engineered Crops
Since the first genetically engineered (GE) crops were approved for commercial use 20 years ago, debate has raged over whether they help or harm the environment, and whether foods that contain GE crops are safe to eat. (This concern is the driving force behind campaigns to require mandatory labeling for products that contain GE crops.)
In May the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a multi-year study that reviewed several decades of evidence on these questions from studies conducted around the world. The study was carried out by 20 experts from fields including biology, medicine, crop science, ecology, law and sociology.
Broadly, the report concludes that there is “no conclusive evidence” that GE crops harm the environment through effects such as out-competing other species and reducing biodiversity. It also finds “no substantiated evidence” that foods from GE crops are less safe than foods from non-GE crops. But the study also raised some concerns. Notably, some insect pests and weeds have evolved to be resistant GE crops or to weed-killers, which makes them much harder for farmers to control.
In the Classroom
The National Academies report is an excellent focus for discussions with high school biology and environmental science students about genetic engineering and concerns over genetic modification of plants. The study’s website allows readers to search findings and recommendations from the report and see the evidence that the committee reviewed on each topic – for example, the effects of GE crops on biodiversity on farms, or the evidence supporting or refuting linkages between eating GE crops and developing cancer, food allergies, or other health problems.
Unit 13 of Annenberg Learner’s Rediscovering Biology course, “Genetically Modified Organisms,” provides a detailed overview of how scientists genetically modify different types of organisms. The expert interview with Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist with the advocacy group Environmental Defense, summarizes major concerns about environmental impacts of GE organisms. And Annenberg’s Genetic Engineering interactive shows how human understanding of genetics has evolved and enabled us to modify organisms.
The study is also a good peg for discussing how scientists tackle problems that cross boundaries between different fields. To analyze the impacts of GE crops and recommend ways to manage them, experts need to understand many different areas, including genetics, plant breeding, ecology, insects, environmental health, sociology (to assess how using GE crops affects farmers and rural communities), and law. According to members of the study committee, they each learned much from discussing studies and evidence with their colleagues.
Many complex problems require scientists to team with colleagues from different disciplines. And even when scientists work within their own fields, their work increasingly requires collaboration and communications skills, as well as understanding of scientific facts and concepts. Annenberg Learner’s Michele McLeod examines why scientists need to collaborate and communicate in this recent post.
To explore this theme using the GE crops report, look at the panel members’ backgrounds and ask your students: What could this person tell you about GE crops? Or try the same approach with another inter-disciplinary problem, such as the spread of Zika virus. How could a weather expert, or a psychologist, help governments develop strategies for curbing Zika outbreaks? Discussions like these can help students think about what other science courses they may want to take, and about the power of teams to solve problems.