The Food Crisis, Genetically Modified Crops,

The cost of rice has soared 75 percent in just the past two months, triggering food riots from Haiti to Mexico to Bangladesh to the Philippines. According to the World Bank, the increase could push 100 million people deeper into poverty by as early as next year.

Most Americans have never experienced severe hunger, but with gas and food prices continually rising and reaching record numbers (the cost of bread rose 7.4 percent last year, twice the rate of inflation, says the Labor Department), those at the lower end of the economic spectrum could face devastating consequences in the near future.

What is causing this perfect storm? Smaller tracts of arable land due to increasing urbanization, livestock grazing, and land reserved for bio-fuel crops.

The market would seem ripe for a new seed. One that would slash food costs because of its near infallibility to survive. That new seed has arrived, but there’s a catch – it’s genetically modified (GM).

Despite concerns over long-term consequences of GM crops, regulators have so far been more likely to overlook them in favor of reaping a short-term solution to higher prices. And that has triggered a vigorous debate. If you’re looking for the perfect marriage of science and character education in your curriculum, this topic is a natural.

According the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the goal of agriculture is shifting from production to environmental and social issues. This is more prevalent in developed countries where food scarcity is not a problem and people are more concerned with health and environment over cost and availability. But being green sometimes comes with a price.

From 2001 until its discovery in 2004, the Swiss agri-biotech firm Syngenta accidentally sold an unapproved, genetically modified seed variety of maize called Bt10 to U.S. farmers. The product was subsequently released into the market, exported to countries that have a moratorium on Bt10, and naturally released into the environment by being carried on the wind and releasing substances into the soil. The mistake wasn’t made public until Nature magazine uncovered the scandal in 2005.

Debate points to raise with your students:

  • Do we say “yes” or “no” to GM crops? And if yes, how should they be regulated?
  • What are the alternatives to GM crops in the face of rising food prices and chronic poverty?
  • If we grow identical seeds on a massive scale, what are the consequences for the food chain, particularly if those seeds are not immune to emerging disease?

Those in favor of GM crop development say we’ve been altering the DNA of our food for years, using hybrid varieties to develop hardier and higher-yield crops. Biotechnology allows such advances at a faster rate.

Those who oppose GM crops say they evolve and interact with the environment, creating imprecise varieties of the original product whose effects are unknown, instable, and can’t be safely regulated.

In the case of Bt10, it was mistaken for Bt11, a previously approved strain. Regulators in some countries accept identical proteins under one submission, while other countries require a separate regulation for each individual protein. The Bt10 variety contained the same protein as Bt11, but the resulting crop was highly resistant to antibiotics and contained DNA that could live in the gut. This could effectively turn humans into living pesticide machines.

Last month’s Web Poll asked “Are the possible benefits of genetically engineering foods worth the unanticipated risks?” The results (15 percent said they were unsure) indicate a lack of awareness on the topic, but a great deal of enthusiasm for it.

By encouraging your students to learn about and discuss important and controversial issues such as this, you’ll enhance their skills as discriminating readers, encourage innovative scientific inquiry, and develop their opinions on topics that will have serious consequences outside the classroom. This is one instance where they can directly and immediately apply what they learn to real-life situations and be real agents for ethical change.