New Fields for Food: Lesson Plan

Learn how the genes of plants are being modified to improve crop yields, and learn about the questions of safety, ethics and environmental health that critics have raised.

UNC-TV Media

Alignment to NC Essential Standards

  • NCES.Bio.3.3.3 — Evaluate some of the ethical issues surrounding the use of DNA technology (including cloning, genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, and Human Genome Project).

Learning Outcomes

Time Allotment Needed: 5 days (block schedule)

Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will describe how DNA technology can be used to provide useful traits in crop plants.
  • Students will evaluate some of the ethical issues surrounding the use of DNA technology for crop modification.

Essential Questions

  1. What is a transgenic plant?
  2. How are transgenic plants useful as food crops?
  3. What are some issues involving the safety and ethics of genetically-modified plants, and why are these issues difficult to resolve? 

Essential Vocabulary

  • Bacterium
  • Biotechnology
  • DNA
  • Genes       
  • Genetic Modification
  • Genome
  • Transgenic plant 



On the board, list the following farm crops: corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets. Ask students to list foods or other products made from these crops. Point out that corn meal is used to make a variety of foods, and cooking oil is often made from corn and soybeans. Although most sugar comes from sugar cane, sugar beets are an important source of table sugar. Then tell students that much of the supply of these four crops comes from genetically-modified plants. Invite students to share what they know about genetic technology and agriculture, and record their ideas. Encourage the class to revisit and revise their list of ideas throughout the lesson.


Students will work independently to gather information about genetic technology and transgenic plants. Encourage students to take notes about the information they learn from the websites below, and to explore related sites that present additional information.



Students will view the NC Science Now video New Fields for Food. After viewing the videos, students should answer the following questions. They can then discuss their answers with a partner or in small groups.

  1. How did Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton discover the first transgenic plant?
  2. How can transgenic plants be useful? Discuss an example.
  3. What is Dr. Chen studying in his lab? How could his work help farmers?
  4. How are researchers evaluating the safety of genetically-modified crops?
  5. Professor Jennifer Kuzma stated that safety is based on more than science. What does this statement mean?


Students will prepare and conduct a survey to assess people's knowledge and opinions of genetically-modified plants. First, have students work in small groups to prepare items for a survey sheet. The sheet could include factual statements or opinions that participants rate on a scale of "disagree strongly" to "agree strongly." Work with students to decide whether the class will collaborate to conduct a single survey, or whether students should conduct separate surveys individually. Students may conduct the survey by interviewing other students in the school, as well as friends and family members. Then students should tabulate and analyze the results.


Students will collaborate to generate a class report on "New Fields for Food." Divide the class into small groups. Each group will prepare a segment of the report, focusing on one of these topics:

  • History: Define transgenic and discuss how the first transgenic plants were developed.
  • Uses and Benefits: Describe and provide examples of how transgenic plants improve farm crops.
  • Controversy: Discuss the issues of safety, ethics, and environmental health that surround transgenic plants and genetic technology.
  • The Future: Predict the role of transgenic plants and genetic technology in the future of agriculture. Include facts and other evidence to support your predictions.

Work with all groups to ensure that all students participate. Encourage students to conduct research to support their opinions with evidence, and to quote the opinions of experts when possible. Students should cite the sources of the information or graphics that they include in their report. Combine the individual segments, either in print or electronic formats, to generate the class report.

Evaluation Rubric