This class case study provides an example of introducing ethical thinking into the classroom to explore a controversial issue in science. It shows how the ethical frameworks in the Ethics thinking toolkit and a range of classroom activities can be integrated to scaffold ethical thinking.

This case study formed part of the research prior to developing the Ethics thinking toolkit and, as such, uses ideas that informed the development of the toolkit and not the toolkit itself. The Ethics thinking toolkit provides additional support to help structure students’ thinking and decision making using ethical frameworks.

Year 9 students used a range of ethical approaches to consider the acceptability of using modern genetic modification (GM) techniques to produce new or modified foods. The teaching sequence formed part of a larger unit of work on the genetic modification of foods.

Science focus

  • Ecology (level 5): Investigate the interdependence of living things (including humans) in an ecosystem (and what changes could potentially arise when organisms are genetically modified using modern technologies).
  • Evolution (level 5): Describe the basic processes by which genetic information is passed from one generation to the next (and that DNA modified in the germ line is also passed on).
  • Participating and contributing (level 4): Use their growing science knowledge (of genetic modification) when considering issues of concern to them. Explore various aspects of an issue and make decisions about possible actions (whether to support the genetic modification of foods).
  • Participating and contributing (level 5): Develop an understanding of socio-scientific issues (in this case, genetically modified foods) by gathering relevant scientific information in order to draw evidence-based conclusions and to take action where appropriate.

Learning objectives

  • To understand that modern methods of genetic modification differ from traditional breeding methods.
  • To identify some of the ethical issues associated with genetically modifying foods using modern technologies.
  • To understand that different approaches can be used to make and explain (justify) ethical decisions.
  • To use one ethical approach to argue for or against genetic modification using a specific example.

Using ethical approaches to guide decision making

Ethicists use a range of ethical approaches to make decisions about what is right or wrong. Students were introduced to five approaches that can be used to guide decision making: consequentialism (‘for the greater good’), rights and responsibilities, autonomy (making informed personal choices), virtue ethics and multiple perspectives.

See the article Frameworks for ethical analysis.

Of the 25 students in the class, 14 (56%) chose to use a consequentialist approach, 5 (20%) chose autonomy and 4 (16%) chose virtue ethics.

Teaching and learning activities


  • Class identified differences between foods available in the past and those currently available.
  • Ideas mapped onto a mind-map or fishbone diagram.

Class discussions

  • Whole-class discussion to explore possible future foods.
  • Arranged modified foods on a continuum from least preferable to most preferable, considering how the food has been modified, who benefits and the advantages and disadvantages of producing the food.
    • Potatoes with a new gene that protects them from insect attack. Farmers don’t need to use chemical sprays (pesticides).
    • Cows’ milk that has been genetically modified to produce a protein to treat cystic fibrosis. (People with cystic fibrosis have thick mucus that clogs their lungs and other organs. They rarely live beyond the age of 30.)
    • Onions with a gene inserted that makes them milder and sweeter. They don’t make your eyes water when they’re peeled.
    • Strawberries with a gene inserted that makes them resistant to weedkillers (herbicides). This means that farmers can spray for weeds but not kill the strawberries. Weed management is greatly simplified.
    • ‘Golden rice’ with genes inserted so that it is enriched with vitamin A and iron for people in Third World countries. (Lack of vitamin A can cause blindness and anaemia, which can cause physical and mental retardation.)
    • Bread with folic acid added to it to reduce the risk of spina bifida developing in babies during the pregnancy. (Spina bifida occurs when there is incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord and the baby has physical and often learning disabilities.)
    • Goats’ milk that has been genetically modified to produce proteins that dissolve clots in arteries.
    • ‘Super salmon’, raised in fish farms, that have been genetically modified for increased growth rate.
    • Spreads such as margarine that have plant sterols added to reduce cholesterol levels in blood.
    • Sheep’s milk that has been genetically modified to provide clotting proteins for haemophiliacs (bleeders).
    • Eggs that have had omega 3 added, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and arthritis.
    • Peanuts with genes deleted to reduce the risk of allergic reactions.
    • Bananas that have been genetically modified to contain a vaccine that can block the transmission of the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
    • Plants modified with a ‘terminator’ gene so that any seeds they produce are sterile. This reduces the risk of crops spreading to new areas, but also means that farmers can’t keep a portion of seeds to plant again the next year.
    • New varieties of crops that contain a drought-resistant gene. This means that they may be able to grow in large areas of some countries where there is no irrigation.
  • Discussion and sequencing activity: How are the foods modified? What is genetic modification? How does it differ from conventional breeding?

Group presentation

Groups researched a chosen genetically modified food and prepared a PowerPoint presentation:

  • How has the food been modified?
  • Who would possibly use the food?
  • Advantages and disadvantages of the new food.
  • Arguments for and against the production of the food.

Class and group discussions

  • What will shape the development of such foods in the future (for example, globalisation, population changes, environmental sustainability, public attitudes, scientific and technological advances, international and domestic law)?
  • Is it right to genetically modify food? (For and against table.)

Teacher talk

  • Introduced the five ethical approaches.
  • Revisited the genetically modified foods values continuum and considered which ethical approach(es) influenced decision making.

Debate and further discussion

  • Should foods be genetically modified? (One representative from each group.)
  • Class discussion to identify the ethical approach(es) used in the debate.


  • Individual position papers to argue for or against genetic modification using a specific example.

Key messages

  • The teacher used a wider range of activities than normal.
  • The modified foods values continuum worked well as an introductory activity because it helped students think about why they thought some issues were more important than others.
  • Students reported that they felt more educated and informed about the pros and cons of genetic modification and that they had a better understanding of the different views people might have about the issue. The debate helped reinforce this.
  • The students coped with the language and ideas of the ethical approaches.
  • The students considered alternative views and the improvements in their justification skills.
  • The students were engaged, motivated and enthusiastic.
  • Writing frameworks helped the students to collate their research and present group and individual positions.


This classroom programme formed part of a project funded by Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council. We thank the teacher and students for participating in this programme.

Useful links

The Ministry for the Environment website explains genetic modification in New Zealand and the regulations surrounding it in New Zealand.

GM foods and how they are regulated is explained on the Food Standards Australia New Zealand website.

RNZ audio from Our Changing World looking at approval for field trials of genetically modified brassicas and issues raised in a two-part series part 1 and part 2.


    Published 17 December 2010, Updated 27 February 2017