Biotechnology vs. sustainability: What do students think?

Published: Friday, May 23, 2008 - 10:14 in Psychology & Sociology

College students in a Sustainable Agriculture course were surveyed before and after taking the class. Students' exposure to the ideas of sustainability, as well as biotechnology-related topics, provided them with a chance to state their views as they completed homework and exams and participated in discussions. William A. Anderson, Professor of Agronomy, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, conducted the survey and shares the results, which are published in the 2008 Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education.

Students were asked to agree or disagree with 17 statements related to sustainable agriculture and biotechnology during the first class session and again during the last session. This helped the instructor to learn their understanding of the topics, to reveal their opinions toward topic-related statements (many of which were controversial), and to stimulate their interest in the course.

At the start of the class, some students believed that biotechnology products and practices were beneficial to agriculture’s sustainability efforts. They supported the use of genetically modified crops, and they did not believe that biotechnology contributed much to food allergy problems or toxins in the environment.

Other students were less comfortable with biotechnology. They noted problems with the decline in biodiversity, safety and reliability, patents, consumer acceptance issues, as well as other environmental, societal, and economic concerns.

"At first, students were neutral about organic farms as fully sustainable businesses, but they rejected that idea later," Anderson says. "They discovered that organic farmers, like conventional farmers, are continually striving to make their operations more sustainable."

The theory that students would likely soften their stances and adopt a more middle, uncertain, or neutral ground related to the more controversial survey statements turned out to be incorrect. Instead, students tended to agree or disagree more strongly in many cases.

The Sustainable Agriculture course, after development and approval by the university, attracted more students than expected, not just the handful who had requested it. Most course participants came from conventional farming backgrounds, rather than organic, and most likely this influenced their acceptance of biotechnology as they strived to find a place for it in sustainable systems.

"I feel that it is critically important for faculty to expose today's students to both sustainable agricultural systems and agricultural biotechnology without introducing personal biases. Students should interject their own educated voices into the evolving debate," concludes Anderson.

Source: American Society of Agronomy


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