Humans have been manipulating living organisms for thousands of years. Examples of early biotechnologies include domesticating plants and animals and then selectively breeding them for specific characteristics. However, the discovery that genes are made up of DNA that can be isolated, copied and manipulated has led to a new era of modern biotechnology.
Modern biotechnologies involve making useful products from whole organisms or parts of organisms, such as molecules, cells, tissues and organs. Increasing understanding of living organisms, cells and genetic material has greatly extended the range of biotechnologies that are and will be possible. These more recent advances are frequently associated with genetic technologies. They include the ability to genetically modify organisms in much shorter timeframes than required by selective breeding and to achieve outcomes not possible with selective breeding.
The scientific advancements of genetically modified organism (GMO) technology has the potential to increase food production, limit environmental damage and reduce disease and genetic abnormalities. There is, however, much public controversy, and there are many different views about how acceptable GMO technology is. For example, big business controlling the production of GMO crops could potentially control world food supply. And what about ‘designer babies’?
A socio-scientific issue is an issue that has both scientific and social implications. Because of this, people hold different viewpoints about how it might be addressed.
The reporting of GMO research and its processes and implications has resulted in varying knowledge and understanding by the general public. Our views can also be affected by the values we hold.
Nature of science
Classroom teachers have the opportunity to support students at all levels to think about the complex issues that affect us all. Wicked problems such as GMO foods can form rich, real-life contexts for developing students’ critical thinking, futures thinking and problem-solving skills as well as their key competencies, including action competence.
Genetically modified organisms
A genetically modified organism is an organism that contains DNA that has been altered using modern genetic technologies. For example, the DNA may have been altered to enhance or change a particular trait. In some cases, genetic material from another type of organism has been added.
In 1996, the New Zealand Government introduced regulations in the form of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO Act). This legislation regulates research into and release of all living things that do not already exist in New Zealand, which includes those that are genetically modified. The HSNO Act applies to anything that can potentially grow, reproduce and be reproduced, whether or not it is also a food or a medicine. The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is the New Zealand authority that considers applications to import, develop, field test or release any new organism (including a genetically modified organism).
Note that many genetically modified foods – like flour produced from genetically modified wheat – are not themselves living organisms. Their presence in New Zealand is regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
The Flavr Savr tomato
The Flavr Savr tomato was the first genetically modified food crop that went to market in the United States. The tomato was produced by Calgene, a Californian company formed in the early 1990s. Their scientists altered the process by which a tomato softens while ripening. They discovered how to turn off the gene that makes tomatoes soft. They did this by adding an antisense gene made from the tomato’s gene sequence to slow the tomato’s production of the enzyme polygalacturonase. The result is a tomato that has a longer shelf life, keeping its firmness for longer.
Supporting students to form personal viewpoints
Students should have access to a wide range of sources while developing their own personal viewpoint on any one issue. The skills they will develop include:
- critiquing sources of information
- analysing the relevant biological knowledge
- identifying the potential social implications and multiple perspectives about these
- articulating and justifying their own positions.
Being able to form and justify a personal position is a critical skill in the scientific community as well as in everyday life.
Below are a selection of both academic and non-academic publications about the Flavr Savr tomatoes that students could use to form a personal position about this innovation. Watching the New York Times video would provide an interesting starting point for students to explore how information from both scientific and non-scientific sources is packaged and communicated to the general public. How does this influence understanding and knowledge for people to be able to make informed choices?
Other genetically modified foods that have since been commercialised could also be investigated, including golden rice and herbicide-resistant corn.
There are many non-academic publications that report on aspects of GMO. The following are some links that will give students a wide range of perspectives – not all of which are scientifically accurate. This will be useful for students to develop skills to critically analyse sources of information.
In order for students to be able to compare, contrast and assess the validity of sources of information, these scientific journal publications will be helpful:
The ethics and transgenics activity supports student learning through a role-play.
There is a wide range of content on the Hub to support the teaching and learning of socio-scientific issues.
- Ethics and genetically modified foods – a case study in a classroom.
- Exploring the ethics of modifying cows with human genes.
- The Ethics thinking tool kit provides you and your students with a framework for unpacking these complex issues.