This case study of Genetically Modified Crops is modified from reports by Kelli Hazzard and Joanne Nazir. The original documents can be downloaded here:
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History of Biotechnology
Further Background Information
WISE Framework Connections
Curricular Expectations Addressed
Assessment Rubric
References and Links

What do you think about fish genes in your strawberries? How about bacteria genes in your potatoes? Increasingly, genetically modified crops and food are being consumed by North Americans. However, very few people have stopped to consider the possible implications of including genetically modified food in their grocery basket. The few individuals that do give genetically modified organisms (GMOs) some thought are sharply divided on the topic. As a consumer, what are your thoughts on this topic? Have you considered the impacts or benefits of GMOs in your decision on what to purchase? What if it was found that little scientific evidence existed about the health risks of GMOs; that GMOs had a negative impact on the environment; and that they were doing very little to alleviate poverty and malnutrition? Would you still eat food you knew contained GMOs? Hopefully, this case will help you consider GMOs in a new light.

A Short History of Modern Biotechnology

Modern biotechnology is based on recombinant DNA technology that was first performed by Paul Berg in 1972. From that moment forward, research in molecular genetics and biotechnology has been going full-tilt.
1953 - Nature magazine publishes James Watson's and Francis Crick's manuscript describing the double helix structure of DNA.
1969 -The first gene is isolated.
1972 - Paul Berg (at Stanford) isolated and employed a restriction enzyme to cut DNA. Berg used ligase to paste two DNA strands together to form a hybrid circular molecule. This was the first recombinant DNA molecule.
1972 -In a letter to Science, Paul Berg and others call for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enact guidelines for DNA splicing. Their letter recommended that scientists stop doing certain types of recombinant DNA experiments until questions of safety can be addressed (The Berg Letter). Their concerns eventually led to the 1975 Asilomar Conference.
1973- Scientists for the first time successfully transferred deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from one life form into another. Stanley Cohen and Annie Chang of Stanford University and Herbert Boyer of UCSF "spliced" sections of viral DNA and bacterial DNA with the same restriction enzyme, creating a plasmid with dual antibiotic resistance. They then spliced this recombinant DNA molecule into the DNA of a bacteria, thereby producing the first recombinant DNA organism.
1974- The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer in which they demonstrated the expression of a foreign gene implanted in bacteria by recombinant DNA methods. Cohen and Boyer showed that DNA can be cut with restriction enzymes and reproduced by inserting the recombinant DNA into Escherichia coli.
1975-A moratorium on recombinant DNA experiments was called for at an international meeting at Asilomar, California, where scientists urged the government to adopt guidelines regulating recombinant DNA experimentation. The scientists insisted on the development of "safe" bacteria and plasmids that could not escape from the laboratory.
1976 - Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson founded Genentech, Inc., a biotechnology company dedicated to developing and marketing products based on recombinant DNA technology.
1976 -The NIH released the first guidelines for recombinant DNA experimentation. The guidelines restricted many categories of experiments.

1980 - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that genetically altered life forms can be patented and therefore allowed the Exxon oil company to patent an oil-eating microorganism. This ruling opened up enormous possibilities for commercially exploiting genetic engineering.
1982 -The US Food and Drug Administration approves the first genetically engineered drug, human insulin produced by bacteria.
1983 -The first transgenic plant is created – petunia plants genetically engineered to be resistant to kanamycin, an antibiotic.
1986 -The first field tests of genetically engineered plants (tobacco) are conducted.

1990 -Chymosin, an enzyme used in cheese-making, becomes the first product of genetic engineering to be introduced into the food supply.
1993 -The FDA declares that genetically engineered foods are "not inherently dangerous" and do not require special regulation. The FDA took the position that GM crops are identical to non-GM crops, so the agency's regulation of foods from biotechnologically altered organisms does not differ from food product regulation in general.
1994 - First commercial approval by the US FDA of a transgenic plant, the Flavr-Savr tomato.

Further Background Information

The Who, What, Why of Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically modified crops are conventionally bred with all the usual desired traits (yield, disease resistance, flower color, maturity date, quality) and then have a GM gene packet, representing a single trait, that is inserted using a recombinant DNA technique. Inserting this single gene packet converts a conventional plant into a GM plant. Crops are genetically modified to incorporate characteristics like herbicide tolerance, insecticide resistance, virus-resistance, enhanced oil quality, male sterility, hardier texture, and delayed ripening. Of these, two traits – herbicide resistance (HT) and Bt (Bacillius thuringienses) which makes a plant insecticidal – account for the majority of genetically modified crops globally. According to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (2004), just 3 countries - the US (63%), Argentina (21%), Canada (6%) account for 90% of the 167 million acres sown to GM crops in 2003. An additional 3 (China and Brazil at 4% and South Africa at 1%) brings the total to 6 countries which jointly account for 99% of all genetically modified crops.
Out of the roughly 15 crop species which have been approved for commercialization in Canada, three account for almost all of the GM hectarage in Canada - corn, canola, and soybean (In the US, it is corn, soybean, and cotton; in Argentina and Brazil it is soy; in China and South Africa it is cotton). Other commercial genetically modified crops include: wheat, rice, cotton, potatoes, tomato, squash, flax, sunflower, papaya, lentil, and sugar-beet. Further details of products/crops which have been approved in Canada.
Did you Know?
In Canada, roughly 60% of our food has at least one genetically modified ingredient. Some estimates peg as many as 30,000 different products on grocery store shelves as "modified." That's primarily because many processed foods contain soy. In Canada, it is not mandatory for food containing GMOs to be labeled.
Why are crops being genetically modified?

Genetically modified crops have been researched and promoted for a variety of benefits including:
  • Increased nutrients and stress-tolerance
  • Higher yields – better potential to feed the world
  • Less dependence on toxic herbicides and pesticides - reduces the ecological footprint of agriculture
  • Improved farm income, resulting from the combination of higher yields, lower input costs, and reduced maturation time
  • Cheaper and better quality food for consumers
  • New products and more efficient processing and growing techniques
  • Significant profit potential (especially for companies like Monsanto, DuPont, and Novartis)


The Opponents of the Technology
There are many criticisms of genetically modified crops and some of the major ones include:
· Uncertainty about the potential long-term impacts on human health
o Research has suggested that GM potatoes could have a negative impact on the immune system of rats however the study was limited (Kuiper et al, 1999)
o No clinical studies exist on human health impact of GMOs and most research showing the safety of GE foods have been conducted or funded by GE firms. (Domingo, 2000)
o Safety test technology is inadequate to assess potential harm
o Possibility of transfer of antibiotic resistance markers from the GMO to gut bacteria potentially making them resistant to antibiotics
o Increase the risk of allergenic reactions
· Uncertainty about the long-term impacts on the environment
o Unknown effects on other organisms (soil microbes). For example, it was found that Bt corn pollen harmed monarch butterfly larvae (Losey et al, 1999)
o Loss of flora and fauna biodiversity
o Increasing toxicity, which may move through the food chain (This is often overlooked because toxicity in food is tested by chemical analysis of macro/micro nutrients and known toxins)
o Disruption to nature's system of pest control
o Creating new resistant weeds or virus strains
o Spreading genetically-engineered genes to indigenous plants. There is a possibility that a gene introduced into a plant may have unforeseen consequences if it gets incorporated into the genome of another plant for which it was not intended through cross-pollination. Monsanto began admitting in 2002 that research and development of GE crops will result in the spreading of GE traits to non-GE crops.
· Management
o Lack of post-release monitoring programs and ill-defined indicators
o Issues with bio-confinement including induced sterility or growth deficiency – no current method is 100% effective and it has been found that some genetically modified organisms are viable in the wild (Hampton, 2004)
o The capacity to do risk assessment and monitoring is often lacking in developing countries
· Access and Intellectual Property
o Domination of world food production by a few companies and countries –The panel notes that the commercialization of biotechnology, including GMOs, is currently being pursued mainly by major corporations, which, understandably, seek to maximize profits." This is one of the reasons why the poorest and most vulnerable groups have not benefited from genetic engineering and are unlikely to do so unless important conditions are put in place," the report says.”
o Increasing dependence on industrialized nations by developing countries
o Bio-piracy—foreign exploitation of natural resources
o New advances may be skewed to interests of rich countries
o The majority of the information collected by the industry is not in the public domain
· Ethics
o Violation of natural organisms' intrinsic values
o Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
o Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa

Connections to the WISE Framework

WISE Issue
Resources/Factors in Decision-making
WISE Action
Impact of genetically modified organisms on the food supply
STSE Expertise

Environmental and health impacts associated with the consumption and production, use of genetically modified crops
Products Expertise
Structure and function of DNA, production of
recombinant DNA

genetic engineering techniques to produce new crop/livestock varieties
Activism Expertise

Assessing the benefits and hazards of a specific technology.

Developing and carrying out an action plan.

Decision making, scientific vs non-scientific evidence
Possible Action Projects

Education campaigns e.g. informational brochure or ad

Lifestyle changes

Lobbying/letter writing campaigns demanding labelling of GM foods

NoST Expertise
Opportunities to explore:
the economic and cultural factors that can influence science and technology

motives for the use of science knowledge (profit vs. humanitarian)

Skills Expertise
Expertise for:
Asking questions, hypothesizing, experimenting, developing conclusions, interpreting reliability and credibility of scientific evidence

scientific communication by debating issues

Project(s) Findings
Results and conclusions from experimental and correlational studies

Curriculum Expectations Addressed

Prior Knowledge:
Students should be able to:
  • Recall that DNA contains genetic, inheritable information.
  • Recall that viruses contain DNA or RNA
Describe cell theory and apply its processes to cell division, including mitosis, and its function in sexual and asexual reproductive systems
  • Discuss cell division and the factors affecting cell reproduction

The Genetically Modified Crops case study is appropriate for the following grades and strands:

Specific Expectations Addressed
Academic, Applied
Biology: Reproduction
The impact of developments in reproductive biology on global and local food production, populations, the spread of disease, and the environment
Diversity of Living Things

Genetic Continuity
DLT1.2 assess the influence of technology on biodiversity (e.g. genetically modified crops
can outperform natural crops leading to eradication, selectively bred fish used in fish farming can escape and outcompete natural

GC1.1 research and assess the social and ethical implications of genetic technologies using
sources from print and electronic
media (e.g., genetic screening can result in a gender imbalance in populations; stem
cell research involves the destruction of embryos).

GC1.2 evaluate examples of Canadian contributions to knowledge, techniques, and
technologies related to genetic processes (e.g., research into cystic fibrosis, injecting
a human gene into safflower to produce insulin, invention of nuclear magnetic resonance).

Molecular Genetics
MG1.1 assess the impact of biotechnology in society(e.g. the impact of cloning a sheep on the theory of differentiation; the impact of transgenic technologies in agriculture).

MG1.2 Evaluate Canadian laws pertaining to biotechnology (e.g., prepare legislation for mandatory DNA finger printing, human cloning, the ownership of a genome, the patenting of genetically-modified organisms)
and compare them to another international juristriction.

MG3.6 describe the functions of the cell components used in biotechnology(e.g., the role of plasmids, restriction enzymes, recombinant DNA, and vectors).

MG3.7 outline the historical contributions that have led to the further development of molecular genetics.

Teaching suggestions:

  • Have students brainstorm what type of scientific research they would like to see conducted regarding GMOs and why? Students should prepare a presentation that outlines a design for how they believe the research should be conducted.
  • Hold an in-class debate or town-hall meeting with various perspectives represented. At the end, have students prepare a self-reflection in which they discuss their own views on the topic.
  • Have students investigate alternative agricultural technologies and contrast these technologies against crop biotechnology
  • Have students consider the pros and cons of labeling GMOS in food products
  • Have students consider whether developing countries should be influenced into using GMOs
The issue of GM food is a complex one. Although teachers are free to use Information Sheets #1-3 in whatever ways might best suit their unique situations the following suggestions are also available for consideration.

  1. a. Present students with Information Sheet #1.
b. Use the example Bt corn to discuss the question:
· What does the term genetic modification mean?
  1. Jigsaw Activity. Divide the class into small groups 4-5 members each. Using Information Sheet #1each group should discuss one set of questions from the list below. Groups report major conclusions to the whole class at the end of the exercise.
· Some people claim that genetic engineering is the same as traditional breeding methods except that it is faster and more accurate. How true or false is this statement?
· A positive trait of Bt corn is that it can resist pest attack by producing its own pesticide. Can you think of any possible negative impact of corn that can produce its own pesticide?
· Look at the list of common GM foods. Estimate how often the people in your group are consuming GM products.
Whole group discussion:
· Do you feel comfortable with your exposure to GM foods? Why or why not?
  1. Student debate “The Case For and Against GM Foods” (using the resources from Information Sheet #2 and their own research). Encourage students when preparing their arguments to question the credibility of the scientific evidence that exists about the health and environmental impacts of genetically modified foods. At the end of the debate students should be encouraged to make and justify a personal stance about GM foods.
  2. WISE Activism. Present Students with Information Sheet #3. Encourage students who are skeptical about the production and consumption of GM foods to adopt, explore and develop a suitable action plan based one or more of the suggested activities.

Assessment Rubric

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4
Knowledge and Understanding
- demonstrates minimal understanding of the nature of genetically modified crops
- demonstrates some understanding of the nature of genetically modified crops
- demonstrates considerable understanding of the nature of genetically modified crops
- demonstrates a thorough understanding of the nature of genetically modified crops
- connects knowledge of GMOs with national and international issues associated with the production and consumption of GMOs with minimal effectiveness.
- connects knowledge of GMOs with national and international issues associated with the production and consumption of GMOs with some effectiveness.
- connects knowledge of GMOs with national and international issues associated with the production and consumption of GMOs with considerable effectiveness.
- connects knowledge of GMOs with national and international issues associated with the production and consumption of GMOs with a high level of effectiveness.

-communicates information with limited clarity

- Information is communicated with minimal organization.

-employs language skills with limited effectiveness.

- communicates information with some clarity

- Information is communicated with some organization.

-employs language skills with some effectiveness.

- communicates information with considerable clarity

- Information is communicated with considerable organization.

-employs language skills with considerable effectiveness

- communicates information with a high degree of clarity

- Information is highly organized.

-employs language skills with a high degree of effectiveness.

References and Links

Clark, A. (2004). Has AgBiotech Lived up to its promise (and what should the scientific community do about it?). Presented at Helen Battle Lecture, University of Western Ontario, Nov. 25, 2005.
Domingo, J. (2000). Health Risks of GM Foods: Many Opinions but Few Data. Science. 288(5472): 1748-1749.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2005). Genetically Modified Organisms in Crop Production and their Effects on the Environment: Methodologies and Monitoring on the Way Ahead. Expert Consultation Report. January 18-20, 2005. Rome, Italy.
Gaskell, G., Bauer, M., Durant, J., and Allum, N. (1999). Worlds Apart? The Reception of Genetically Modified Foods in Europe and the US. Science. 285(July 16):384-387.
Hampton, T. (2004). Prevent Genetically Modified Organisms From Escaping Into Nature, Report Urges. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2004(291):1055.
Innovest Strategic Value Advisors (2005). Monsanto & Genetic Engineering: Risks for Investors. Analysis of company performance on intangible investment risk factors and value drivers. Report: January 2005.
Kuiper, H., Noteborn, H., and Peijnenburg, A. (1999) Adequacy of Methods for Testing the Safety of Genetically Modified Foods. The Lancet. 354(9187): 1315-1316.
Losey, J., Rayor, L., and Carter, M. (1999) Transgenic Pollen Harms Monarch Larvae. Nature. 399 (May 20): 214.
Marwick, Charles (2000). Genetically Modified Crops Feed Ongoing Controversy. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000 (283): 188-190.