Target Grade Level / Age Range:

Grades 9-12


1 hour

Virtual Learning:

Use this document to convert the lesson into a virtual learning module for your students. Use the steps outlined to create the different elements of a Google Classroom or other online learning platform. You can also send the steps directly to students in a PDF, present them in a virtual meeting, or plug them into any other virtual learning module system.


Students will use the film “FARMLAND” to gain a basic understanding of genetically engineered crops and compare conventional and organic farming practices.


Suggested Companion Resources


  • GMO – stands for “genetically modified organism,” and generally refers to organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that would not occur naturally, or organisms that have been altered through genetic engineering.
  • Genetic engineering – the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material.
  • Transgenic – an organism that contains genetic material into which DNA of an unrelated organism has been artificially introduced. 
  • Biotechnology – the use of living cells, bacteria, etc. to make useful products or the process of intentionally making a copy of a gene for a desired trait from one plant or organism and using it in another plant.
  • Organic farming – USDA regulated farming without the use of synthetic pesticides, artificial growth hormones, or antibiotics.

Interest Approach or Motivator

Students will test their knowledge with a pre-quiz to pique their interest and see how much they know about these controversial topics.  

Background – Agricultural Connections

Biotechnology plays a huge role in agriculture. Many farmers across the U.S. choose to plant GMO crops every year, while others choose to plant non-GMO crops or farm organically.

GMOs provide several benefits to farmers. Some GMOs can help reduce the number of overall pesticides used to produce a crop because the seeds have the ability to defend themselves from some pests. Other GMO crops are resistant to herbicides, so a herbicide (weed-killer) can be sprayed in a field to kill weeds without damaging the crops. For example, Papaya has been genetically engineered to resist a very damaging disease. On the whole, GMO crops are higher-yielding.

There are also consumer benefits to GMOs. A potato has been genetically engineered to produce less of a potential carcinogen when fried and resist bruising, and an apple has been genetically engineered not to turn brown after it has been cut open. Both of these reduce food waste, and provide strong benefits to the consumer.

As of May 2015, there are ten crops that have GMO varietals on the market: corn, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, cotton, papaya, sugar beets, potatoes, apples, and squash. GMO crops first became available in 1994. Scientists and the majority of health organizations around the world agree that GMO crops are safe for human and animal consumption.  

Some farmers choose not to raise GMO crops, and they do not receive the benefits of the GMO crops. However, they often receive a premium from buyers for the conventional product. This premium helps to balance out the costs of crop protectants and the opportunity cost of a lower yield. Others choose to farm organically.

Organic farmers are not allowed to use GMO crops, and are also barred from using synthetic chemicals. They are, however, allowed to use natural sources of fertilizer and pesticides. Farmers who farm organically also receive a premium for their products. According to the USDA, organic foods are neither safer nor more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. The organic program is regulated by the USDA, and any product labeled organic must be USDA certified. The USDA regulates how organic food is grown, handled and processed.

Organic farmers use tillage and crop rotation to control weeds and insects, along with some USDA organic-approved chemicals. They often use animal manure to fertilize fields. Organically farmed livestock must be fed organic feed have access to the outdoors. They can’t be treated with antibiotics or given growth hormones. Organic land must be farmed organically for three years before it can be certified organic and the products off of it can receive the USDA certified organic label and premiums.


  1.  Administer the pre-quiz to students without discussing the topics of GMOs or organic vs. conventional food production. Allow them to answer the quiz questions based on their own prior knowledge. Review questions as an entire class, and create a KWL chart. Have students write what they know about GMOs and organic agriculture in one column, what they want to know in the next, and then at the end of the lessons have them complete the last column with what they have learned.
  2. Give a brief introduction of GMOs and the science behind them.
    1. Play either the “How do you Make a GMO?” Or the “What is the difference between cross breeding, GMO and cross pollination?” videos for the class. Ask them to take notes on the science behind the technology. Using the Crop Breeding and Genetic Improvement Comparison Chart may be helpful to display for students to compare GMOs to other breeding methods after watching the video.
    2. Some talking points may include:
      1. Vocabulary surrounding biotechnology can be very confusing. Work through the definitions of GMO, genetic engineering, transgenic and biotechnology found in the Vocabulary section.
      2. Genetic engineering allows scientists to transfer genes from one species to another for crop improvements such as longer shelf life, insect or disease resistance, or added nutrition.
      3. GMOs are heavily tested before reaching the market – in fact, they are tested far more than conventionally bred foods. It takes 13 years for a GMO to make it to the market. GMOs are tested for nutrient composition, non-nutrient composition and potential presence of allergens.
      4. GMOs are grown, used or imported to 70 different countries.
      5. The U.S. is the world’s largest grower of GMOs.
  3. Ask students if they believe they have ever eaten a GMO and facilitate a class discussion on the prevalence of GMO foods.
    1. Some students may believe they have not, but most processed foods contain GMO corn or soybeans. Some examples of processed foods containing corn or soy would be soda, most candy, cookies, soups, and granola bars. Ask students to support their answers with prior knowledge (i.e., ‘my family only eats organic food,’ ‘I know that most produce is not genetically modified,’ etc.).  The most focus should be on the reasoning and prior knowledge of the students, and what conclusions they can draw from the information given. At the end of the discussion, reveal to students that there are only eight commercially available genetically engineered crops, with apples and potatoes soon to join the list. Chances are that all the students in the class have eaten GMOs, even if they didn’t know it.
  4. Play the clip from the movie FARMLAND. Ask students to take careful notes on the various farmers’ thoughts on chemicals, GMOs, and organic production.
  5. Have students create a “tug of war” with the information from the film. Have them identify factors that “pull” either side of the dilemma, and then “tugs” or reasons to support either side of the dilemma. This can be done by writing the pulls on either side of a white board, and having students use sticky notes to write down their tugs and stick them to the tugs. Then, some discussion questions could include:
    1. Why do you think the public perception of GMOs is such a challenge for the agriculture industry?
    2. Which farmer do you agree with the most?
    3. What are the farmers’ reasons for growing GMO crops?
    4. Do the farmers reassure you of the safety of genetically engineered crops?
    5. What are some of the benefits of biotechnology the farmers discuss?
    6. If you were a farmer, do you think you would grow GMO crops?
  6. Introduce the idea of organic farming to students. Begin by asking if students are familiar with the term and what they think it implies about the food products.
  7. Introduce the following farm scenarios to students, and have them answer the associated questions using their newly gained background knowledge.
    1. Leighton is considering expanding his business to earn more money. He knows that organic farmers receive a higher price for their crops, but also knows that he must farm organically for 3 years before he can become certified organic and receive the premium. Still, he is interested and comparing the pros and cons of organic and conventional farming. What are the pros and cons of organic farming? What are the pros and cons of conventional farming?  
    2. Margaret is looking for new ways to market her products. She is told by a marketing company that if she labels her produce “non-GMO” consumers may be more inclined to buy it. Based on Margaret’s comments in the movie clip and your knowledge of GMOs, what do you think she would do in this situation?
    3. Sutton, the organic farmer in the movie, receives a relatively large premium for his organic onions compared to conventional onion farmers. However, a new onion virus is coming through California, where he farms. There is a new GMO onion that is resistant to the virus that will be coming onto the market soon. It works similarly to the GMO papaya.
      1. Is Sutton allowed to raise the new GMO onion and sell it as organic?
      2. What are some pros and cons of this situation?
      3. If you were Sutton, how would you handle this situation?
  8. Have students return their focus to the practice test or KWL chart they worked on at the beginning of the lesson, and give them 5 minutes to work in pairs and correct their quizzes. Then, read them the correct answers. How many questions did they get right? What were some of the most commonly missed questions? Were students surprised by any of the answers to the questions? Is there anything they still have questions about? 

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • 88% of scientists believe that GMOs are safe to eat.
  • 89% of U.S. corn produced is GMO.
  • 94% of U.S. soybeans produced are GMO.
  • 42% of organic farms sell directly to consumers, compared to 7% of conventional farmers who sell directly to consumers.
  • Organic farmers are more likely to be beginning, first-generation farmers.
  • There are 18,513 certified organic farms and business in the United States.
  • Organic sales were values at $34 billion in 2014.

Extension Activities

  • Have students create scientific brochures about GMOs. Rate them on the factuality of the information and creativity.
  • Have students write a position paper on conventional vs. organic farming. Have students choose either organic or conventional agriculture, research the topic, and write about the most significant benefits and concerns of either practice.
  • Allow students to explore the controversy surrounding the debate on GMOs. Have one side of the class represent a pro-GMO group and the other represent a group that is more cautious of the technology. Have students research their arguments, cite their sources and discern between biased and unbiased information. Students should be able to acknowledge the conflicting information about GMOs and the benefits and risks of the technology by the end of the debate.
  • Have students with strong science backgrounds identify current problems in agriculture (nutrient deficiencies, fertilizer runoff, food waste, etc.), a possible transgenic solution to that problem, and the global impact of the solution. For example:
    • Humans waste a huge amounts of potatoes because they have black bruises on them. The solution to this problem is a GMO potato that doesn’t brown, and that means much less waste all over the globe.
    • Corn requires high amounts of nitrogen, and it cannot fix its own nitrogen like soybeans, with their root nodules and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, can. Farmers have to apply large amounts of nitrogen to the fields to produce quality corn, but the nitrogen can runoff and is damaging to the environment. The solution is to create a GMO corn plant that can produce nodules and sustain the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to stop nitrogen runoff, prevent further damage to the environment and save farmers thousands of dollars on fertilizers.


Kelsey Faivre

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  •  Theme 2: Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy Outcomes
    • Evaluate evidence for different points of view on topics related to agricultural production, processing, and marketing
  • Theme 3: Food, Health, and Lifestyle Outcomes
    • Explain food labeling terminology related to marking and how it affects consumer choices (e.g., natural, free-range, certified organic, conventional, cage-free, zero trans-fat, sugar-free, reduced calorie)
  • Theme 4: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Outcomes
    • Identify current and emerging scientific discoveries and technologies and their possible use in agriculture
    • Evaluate the benefits and concerns related to the application of technology to agricultural systems (e.g., biotechnology)

Education Content Standards

  • HS-ESS3-4 Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
  • HS-ESS3-2: Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and logical arguments regarding relevant factors (e.g. economic, societal, environmental, ethical considerations).
  • HS-ETS1-1: Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants


Common Core Connections

  • 21.9-12.ES.2- Adapt to various roles and responsibilities and work flexibly in climates of ambiguity and changing priorities.
  • 21.9-12.TL.2- Use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.

Creative Commons License

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