Target Grade Level / Age Range:



Five 45-minute class periods


To teach research, persuasive writing, and debate through the lens of common food issues


  • Computers
  • Internet connection
  • Reference materials
  • Stopwatch or timer

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)

  • Food Evolution (video)

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Debate: a formal discussion on a particular topic, in which opposing arguments are put forward
  • Persuade: cause someone to do something through reasoning or argument OR provide a sound reason for someone to do something
  • Bias: a prejudice in favor or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair
  • Objective: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts
  • Validity: the quality of being logically or factually sound; soundness or cogency
  • Authority: the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something
  • Citation: a quotation from or reference to a book, paper, or author, especially in a scholarly work
  • Farrow: the act of a pig giving birth to piglets
  • Gestation: the process of carrying or being carried in the womb between conception and birth
  • Sow: a female pig that has given birth (farrowed)
  • Genetically Modified Organism: an organism that has had its DNA altered
  • Artificial selection: the breeding of plants and animals to produce desirable traits
  • Nitrogenous bases: a nitrogen containing molecule with properties of a base; the building blocks of DNA (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine)
  • Antibiotics: a medicine that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms
  • Vaccination: treatment with a vaccine to produce immunity against a disease; inoculation
  • Withdrawal period: the time required after administration of a drug before the animal’s meat or milk products are safe to harvest; the time necessary for an animal to metabolize an administered product

Background – Agricultural Connections (what would a teacher need to know to be able to teach this content)

This lesson will walk through a three-step process in literacy, while giving students the opportunity to learn more about agricultural issues. There are multiple issues the class can choose, and each is outlined below.

The main format of the lesson is to have a class choose a topic, give a short introduction to the topic, have students write a short research paper outlining the issue, hold a debate, then have students practice their persuasive writing skills in a report to summarize their position after the debate is held.

In the research paper section of class, it will be important to teach students about trustworthy sources and how to identify biases. Many things can be taken into account when looking at sources, such as when it was published, if it was published by a company or by a third-party researcher, if it references sources itself, and by how many other reputable sources say similar things (consensus). This could be a good class period to bring in a science teacher, professor, or researcher to have them help explain how they look at data and professional opinions. Extension personnel could be a good resource for this.

When trying to frame these issues, students might find it necessary to include opinions from public individuals. If public opinion is something that they are trying to display, a “credible” source might not be the best choice. In that case, try to have students note the authority of the source and why their view helps make the full issue more clear. In this instance, citing a person’s blog or news story about a protest would be more appropriate than the student saying an opinion in first person.

The second section of the lesson deals with debate. While this can be a great way to get students more engaged, it could also trigger some emotions, so it may be a good idea to start this section with ways to acknowledge others, listen appropriately, stay composed, and deliver ideas respectfully. Talk to students about waiting until a student is finished talking to begin speaking, never insult the student, keep voices level, and use “I statements” (such as, “I noticed that you mentioned, animal welfare. I, too, am concerned about this, however, I believe that this has been misconstrued...”). The debate will be formatted like a formal debate with opening statements, rebuttals, question and answers, closing statement, and audience questions. This process should take about 30 minutes. If your class period is longer or if you’d like to spend more time on the debate, you could either add more back and forth in the debate, or elongate specific portions of the outline. A document is attached with the structure and tips on what to include in what areas.

After the debate and discussion will come the persuasive writing component. In this component, it will still be important to talk about good sources and how to cite those sources, but it will also be important to talk about what persuades people, how they make up their minds, and how to present influential ideas in an appropriate way.

Some possible food issues topics are:

  • Farrowing and gestation stalls for pigs
  • Resolution: It is ethical to use farrowing and gestation stalls in swine production.

Farrowing is the term used to describe when a mother pig (called a sow) gives birth. Pigs have a relatively short gestation period (length of pregnancy) at 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days. In farrowing operations, a farmer generally tries to average 2.5 litters per sow per year. When they farrow, the sows average about 7.5 piglets per litter. Compared to other species, pigs are very efficient at procreating, and generally don’t have problems during farrowing itself.

The issues involved in farrowing are mostly about the piglets’ well-being. Sows can be quite large (about 300 pounds or more), and piglets weigh only about 3 pounds when born. Because of the sow’s large size and because of her large litter of small piglets around her, it can be easy for a sow to step on or lay on top of her piglets. This can kill the piglets, which is not only an inhumane death, but is also a loss of income for the farmer. To help curb this, farmers have used what are called farrowing stalls, where the sow is restricted to an area large enough for her to stand up, eat, and lay down, and her piglets have access to an apron or side wing where they can safely lay without being stepped on. These farrowing stalls are sometimes criticized because it restricts the movement of the sow.

Gestation stalls are similar to farrowing stalls in function, but differ in purpose. Gestating females require extra attention and can need personalized care. Because of this, gestation stalls are sometimes used to keep each specific sow’s feed, water, and medical records precise and separate. Gestation stalls are also criticized for restricting the movement of sows. Because of this, farmers have also been trying approaches such as group pens, where a small group of sows are housed together in a larger pen, or free-access stalls adjacent to a larger pen. Farmers don’t like to house too many sows in one pen, because like many animals, pigs have a tendency to establish a pecking order, which can result in fighting and injuries. An advantage of the free-access stalls are that if a sow is getting picked on, she can choose to stay within her stall and have access to all of the food and water she needs while staying protected.

Some research has also been done in housing gestating sows in hoop barns (an open-air barn with a curved roof that covers two sides), however this is not a common practice due to factors such as labor requirements, temperature/weather, and efficiency.

Good sources:

Genetically Modified Organisms

Resolution: Genetically modified crops are adequately tested, beneficial to society, and safe.

GMOs can be a hefty and daunting topic, but it can be broken down. To understand the scope of the debate, it may be necessary to go over some of the basics of plant breeding, artificial selection, natural selection, and DNA with the class.

Since humans started cultivating their own crops instead of hunting and gathering, they have been selecting seeds from plants that are in some way superior. With corn, it was selecting for plants that were taller, produced larger ears with more kernels, and were easier to harvest. With peaches, it was for plants with larger, sweeter fruit. It might surprise you that brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi are all technically the same plant (mustard), but each variety was selected by our ancestors for slightly different traits. This is called artificial selection; humans artificially selected seeds from plants with beneficial characteristics.

Natural selection helps ensure the survival of the organism by increasing chances of reproduction or developing some defense against predators or environmental elements. For example, many male birds develop colorful plumage to attract a mate and increase the chance of procreation. Or for example, turtles evolved with a dense shell that they can pull their head and legs into to protect from dangerous predators. In artificial selection, humans act as an outside force guiding the evolutionary process to benefit them. Corn is largely reliant on humans no to spread its seeds. Today’s corn would not procreate well without human influence. Wild pigs (wild boars) have large teeth to help dig roots and defend themselves from other animals. Domestic pigs don’t have large teeth and wouldn’t be able to defend themselves well in the wild, thus needing humans to protect them.

Today, we know all of these things are due to genetics. For every physical trait, there is a specific code or gene in that organism’s DNA. When our ancestors artificially selected for specific traits, they were dependent on random mutations in that organism’s DNA. In nature, organisms will naturally exhibit random mutations that in some cases are beneficial. In corn, maybe the random mutation was that the plant grew more upright instead of with many tillers (stems), making it easier to cultivate.

DNA is comprised of four nitrogenous bases. All living organisms’ DNA is made of the same four nitrogenous bases. They are adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine (A, C, G, and T). You may recall that DNA looks a bit like a twisted ladder. On that ladder, each rung is two nitrogenous bases that have bonded. We know that A only bonds with T and C only bonds with G. These bonded pairs will make up the rungs of our ladder. The organism’s body will read the order of the bases along one side of the ladder, and this will code for specific proteins to be made, and will tell the body where to send them to.

Scientists can now recognize many of these codes. Because of this, they have been able to isolate and remove problematic genes, and insert beneficial genes. There are multiple tools that scientists can use to do this, including agrobacterium, which is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that acts as a vector when inserting DNA; particle bombardment or a gene gun, which physically forces genes into a plant; and CRISPR-cas9, which acts like a genetic cut and paste program. To specifically group together lab-made changes in DNA, a good term is genetic engineering.

When a plant is altered using these methods, it is overseen by regulations from three federal agencies: the USDA, FDA, and EPA in the United States. According to Forbes, each GMO variety takes an average of $130 million and 13 years to reach the market.

However, the term GMO remains a bit cloudy. For instance, in government communications, organic foods cannot be GMO. The government does not recognize artificially selected crops as GMO, but many scientists do. The government also does not recognize foods created by mutagenesis (seeds bombarded with radiation to promote random mutations; think ruby red grapefruit) to be GMOs.

Iowa does use genetically modified crops; most specifically herbicide resistant corn and soybeans, and Bt corn and soybeans. Herbicide resistant crops (also called RoundUp Ready, the brand name) have a specific gene from a plant resistant to a certain herbicide so that a farmer can spray a herbicide to curb weed growth instead of relying on tillage for weed control. Bt crops contain a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium that is fatal to specific types of caterpillars that cause root damage, stem damage, and death in many crops. This is used so that farmers do not need to spray a pesticide for insect protection, saving them time, money, and protecting them from having to be around more chemicals than necessary.

It is argued that herbicide resistance is problematic because it allows farmers to spray too much herbicide. In recent years, the amount of herbicide used has increased, but since herbicide resistant crops are resistant to less toxic herbicides, the overall toxic load of herbicides has decreased.

Some argue against the use of Bt crops because they are concerned with adverse health effects. However, the gene in question only affects certain species of caterpillars.

As a whole, people have voiced the following concerns about GMOs in general: lack of research for human health risks, corporate greed/buyout, unknown environmental impacts.

Good sources:

Antibiotic use in livestock

Resolution: Current regulations surrounding antibiotic use in livestock are adequate.

Livestock, like humans and pets, sometimes get medicines. Farmers that raise animals might use medicines to do one or two things; one would be to prevent diseases (vaccines), and the other would be to treat diseases to stop them from spreading (antibiotics). Vaccines are primarily administered in the early part of an animal’s life, generally around the time they are weaned from the mother or before they are moved to a different farm. Pigs are commonly vaccinated for porcine reproductive & respiratory syndrome (PRRS), pseudorabies, and influenza. Cattle are commonly vaccinated for Bovine Virus Diarrhea (BVD), and Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus (BRSV), among some others.

Antibiotics can be given to animals at different points in their life, based on need. Each antibiotic has a withdrawal period, which regulates how soon after the antibiotic is given the animal can be harvested for human consumption. (In dairy cows, this applies not only to their meat, but also to their milk.) When the withdrawal period is up, the antibiotic will be out of the animal’s system. This is regulated, and farmers can be fined heavily for not abiding by these regulations. This, paired with the cost associated with antibiotics, helps incentivize responsible applications.

In addition to these two uses, there is another use mostly common in cattle. This group of products are called ionophores, and they are used as feed additives that regulate microbial activity in the rumen, essentially promoting efficient growth. These are technically classified as an antibiotic, but they differ in that they are not used to treat or prevent a disease. In poultry and swine, similar products classified as antimicrobial growth promoters (AGPs) have been used in feeds.

Historically, farmers have used low-levels of generic antibiotics (such as penicillin) as feed additives in certain species, in hopes that it would keep their herd or flock healthy and stave off illness. However, this has caused concern about leading to the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases. Though most of the antibiotic groups used in livestock are not also used in humans, antibiotic resistance can pose threats to animal welfare even if human health is not directly impacted by the antibiotic. Similar criticisms are used against AGP usage as they are with therapeutic antibiotics. Because of consumer concern, many farmers are halting the widespread use of antibiotics in feed and administer antibiotics in a more targeted method. It is still somewhat common to include antibiotics in poultry feed when the animals are very young because they do not have fully developed immune systems and disease easily could spread from one animal to the next.

Animal health, welfare, and economic impact are large factors in the farmer’s perspective. If an animal gets sick with a treatable disease, it can be seen as unethical to not treat the animal with an antibiotic. The farmer may also think about the economic impact of losing the animal as compared the cost of the treatment.

Good sources:

Interest Approach or Motivator

Ask students what they know about research, persuasive writing, and debates. Take a few suggestions from students.


Day 1
  1. Begin the unit by explaining to the class how the week (or next few class periods) will go. Explain that they will start by learning about a specific food issue, will write a research paper about it, have a class debate, then write a persuasive paper based on the things they learned in the paper and the debate.
  2. To start this process, tell students that they have three possible topics to explore. They are farrowing and gestation stalls in pig production, GMOs, and antibiotic use in livestock. Quickly answer any clarifying questions students have about what these topics are, and hold a vote as a class to choose a topic
    1. If time allows in your classroom, you could forego the vote and use multiple of the topics. This would mean multiple papers, multiple debates, and multiple persuasion papers, and a longer total unit.
  3. Once the topic is chosen, spend about 20 minutes giving the students background about the topic. Use the information in the Background section above and the included sources there to give students more information and answer their questions.
    1. Sources like videos and news stories could also be good to show during this time. If you’d like to show multiple videos, a full-length documentary, or have speakers come into class, this portion could be elongated to a full class period or two.
    2. During this overview, it’s important to stay as factual and objective as possible, so that students have the opportunity to do their own research for their paper and debate.
  4. After teaching the students some background, hand out the research paper document (attached). Walk through with them what the assignment looks like, and how to write a good research paper. Help give them some ideas for good sources and valid places to look for sources. Also use this time to walk through MLA format.
  5. For the rest of the class period, let students work independently to get started on their research papers.
Day 2
  1. On Day 2, let students work independently on their research papers. As students work, walk through the classroom helping students with any questions they have.
    1. Do they understand MLA format?
    2. Are they finding credible sources?
    3. Are they able to find information on multiple sides of the issue? Is there one side that’s harder to find credible information for? Where can they look for information to fill that need?
  2. Remind students that these papers will be due the day of the debate, and that the next class period will be used to prepare for the debate, so they will need to finish their research today in class or in study hall or at home.
Day 3
  1. Today will be the start of the debate section of the unit. Introduce students to the resolution, and tell them they will be split into sections; one group debating for the resolution, one group debating against, and one group as the audience.
  2. Then, randomly assign all students into the three sections.
  3. Hand out the debate outline and rubric document (attached), and walk through the outline as a class. Answer any questions about the debate as they come up.
  4. Once the class has gone over the document together, split up the groups and have them begin preparing for the debate. Give them the rest of the time that day to work on organizing their debate positions.
    1. The audience group likely won’t need much time to prepare. If they quickly become comfortable with their role, questions they may ask, and with the debate rubric, allow them the rest of class to finish up their research paper.
Day 4
  1. Today is the debate day. Start the debate as soon as possible, following the given debate outline. Ensure all students in the audience have their rubrics and writing utensils.
    1. Since the debate is time-sensitive, either the teacher or a designated audience member will need a stopwatch or timer to keep the debate on time.
    2. During the debate, try not to interfere, but do step in if a point gets heated or unruly.
  2. After the debate, have the audience tally their rubrics (make sure they scored all aspects and clearly noted which rubric is for which team), and collect them. Quickly tally the points and announce which team won the debate.
  3. Use the last part of class to talk about what went well, and what could have gone better. Did the debate change anyone’s mind? Why or why not? What kinds of arguments or sources made the biggest impact in the debate?
  4. Then talk about the issue itself. Is one side a clearly better answer than the other? Or is there a good answer somewhere in between? Does the two-sided debate really encompass the issue?
Day 5
  1. This class period will be used to introduce persuasive writing. Talk with students about what persuasion is, and how that can translate into writing. Students may have had persuasive writing projects in younger grades, but with this assignment, they will be expected to use greater logic, reasoning, and include more facts and sources into their argument.
  2. Hand out the persuasive writing paper document (attached), and go through the requirements with the class.
  3. Tell students that their persuasive writing paper should relate to the topic from their research paper and debate. Their paper does not need to align with their position in the debate. If desired, students could even create a third option that the debate did not have.
  4. Give students the due date for the paper, and give them the rest of the class period to work on their paper.

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

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • Iowa is the No. 1 pork producing state.
  • Iowa is the No. 1 corn and soybean producing state.
  • Iowa is the No. 1 egg producing state.
  • 1 in 5 Iowans works in agriculture.

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)

  • Expand the unit by researching more food issues, including sustainability, world hunger, water quality, or others.
  • Assign other types of communication to the same topic, such as an annotated bibliography, news story, or a creative writing story about how the world would be different if a certain variable was different about said topic.



Chrissy Rhodes

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber, and Energy Outcomes:
    • T2.6-8.b: Explain the role of ethics in the production and management of food, fiber (fabric or clothing), and energy sources
    • T2.6-8.e: Identify strategies for housing for animal welfare and the safety of animal products (e.g., meat, milk, eggs)
    • T2.9-12.d: Evaluate evidence for differing points of view on topics related to agricultural production, processing, and marketing (e.g., grazing; genetic variation and crop production; use of fertilizers and pesticides; open space; farmland preservation; animal welfare practices; world hunger)
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Outcomes:
    • T4.9-12.d: Evaluate the benefits and concerns related to the application of technology to agricultural systems (e.g., biotechnology)

Education Content Standards

  • English Language Arts:
    • 6-8:
      • IA.1: Employ the full range of research-based comprehension strategies, including making connections, determining importance, questioning, visualizing, making inferences, summarizing, and monitoring for comprehension
      • IA.2: Read on-level text, both silently and orally, at an appropriate rate with accuracy and fluency to support comprehension
      • W.6-8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
      • W.6-8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content
      • W.6.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources; assess the credibility of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and providing basic bibliographic information for sources.
      • W.7-8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital resources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
      • SL.6-8.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade specific topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
      • SL.6.3: Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not
      • SL.7.3: Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
      • SL.8.3: Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced
      • SL.6.4: Present claims and findings, sequencing ideas logically and using pertinent descriptions, facts, and details to accentuate main ideas or themes; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation
      • SL.7.4: Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with pertinent descriptions, facts, details, and examples; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
      • SL.8.4: Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
    • 9-12:
      • IA.1: Employ the full range of research-based comprehension strategies, including making connections, determining importance, questioning, visualizing, making inferences, summarizing, and monitoring for comprehension
      • IA.2: Read on-level text, both silently and orally, at an appropriate rate with accuracy and fluency to support comprehension
      • RI.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as interferences drawn from the text.
      • RI.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
      • W.9-12.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
      • W.9-12.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
      • W.9-12.7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
      • SL.9-12.1: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade specific topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
      • SL.9-10.3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
      • SL.11-12.3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.
      • SL.9-10.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
      • SL.11-12.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and range of formal and informal tasks.

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