Genes and Chemicals in Agriculture: Value and Risk (BIO 435-435H/535, FS 435-435H/535)
Course Objectives
Broad goals
Agriculture and food production systems increasingly rely on a diverse array of biotechnologies to increase outputs, assure quality, and reduce costs. Mechanization provided the first major wave of technology in the last century, but genetics and chemistry have become prominent since World War II. They have led to major increases of agricultural productivity, but also to new or expanded environmental and humanitarian problems.

Mechanization provided the first major wave of technology in the last century, but genetics and chemistry have become prominent since World War II. They have led to major increases of agricultural productivity, but also to new or expanded environmental and humanitarian problems. They have continued to help increase productivity from agriculture and led to some large reductions of environmental impact from conventional agriculture. However, significant numbers of citizens oppose or have serious concerns about the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and natural resources. Many have even turned away from conventionally produced foods and even medicines, in favor of alternatives such as organic agriculture and herbal remedies. This has occurred in response to concerns about food safety and impact on the environment, as well as about adequacy of government oversight, social equity, patenting of genes, and corporate control of production systems in a globalized world. Opinion polls have also shown that most citizens have a very poor understanding of basic genetic, chemical, and environmental sciences from which to make sound judgments.

The key goal of this class is to increase the science and social literacy of students with respect to "high technology" production methods in agriculture, particularly the use of modern genetics and chemistry. The class will examine both benefits and harms to societies and the environment, and means for making intelligent choices. The class uses biotechnologies, broadly defined, to include genetics and chemistry for the purpose of modifying the physiology, survival, economics, and environmental impacts of agricultural organisms, pests, and related ecological services. We see this class as a "prism" with which to look at the bigger issue of how we can use technology to both conserve and sustainably utilize the natural resources on which societies depend. By bringing together an interdisciplinary team of faculty that have diverse expertise and perspectives, we hope to provide students with the information they need to make wise choices, critically evaluate the quality of information provided to them, and ask meaningful questions. With the diverse claims of miracle crops and dangers from food becoming commonplace, citizens need a reliable base of information to make informed decisions what they want their food and environments to look like.

Issues Covered
Detailed content
Genetic engineering (GE) is the isolation, modification, and asexual transfer of genes between species, and is commonly referred to as genetic modification (GM) in much of the world outside the USA. GMOs means "genetically modified organisms." GE methods can be used to modify a number of different traits of food and fiber crops, and the possibilities are increasing rapidly as the "genome revolution" in biology progresses. More than 50 different GM varieties have been authorized for commercial use in the United States, and some have had major environmental benefits in the form of pesticide reduction and reduced soil tillage. However, some segments of the community, and many countries in the world, are concerned that these newly modified crops may be hazardous to human health and the environment, or cause socioeconomic harms and ethical transgressions.

Chemicals, synthetic and natural, have been used to control pests and fertilize crops, for thousands of years. However, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on a large scale has greatly accelerated in recent decades. This has created valuable tools for managing major human diseases such as malaria, and has greatly reduced the risk of famine via increased agricultural production, but it has also created many new problems in the form of environmental pollution and human toxicities.

The goal of this class is to examine the diverse issues and views that surround genetic engineering and use of agrochemicals, and the benefits and risks they hold for society. We will explore:
Education outcomes expected

At the end of the class, students should be able to describe:

Respect for differing perspectives on biotechnology
Biotechnologies mean very different things to different people. How people react depends on their religious beliefs, philosophical perspectives, and level of familiarity with the science and technology. People hold diverse and often spiritual views toward food, environment, and the biological world. Discussions can therefore easily become heated and personal.

In this class, all perspectives are to be welcomed and respected. The focus of this class is on the science and ethics underlying genetic and chemical biotechnologies, however, our personal views will color how we interpret technical information, as well as the degree of uncertainty we are willing to accept when making decisions about food and environmental safety. Science delivers information, but never certainty. There will often be disagreement about regulatory decisions and the adequacy of science underlying new technology. Let's listen carefully and respectfully to other's views, and try to understand motivation as well as logic, before stating our own views. In all cases a civil and respectful tone during discussions will be required.