Crop Failures and Food Riots

In the spring of 2008, many news outlets reported that rice crop failures in East Asia could have been avoided. An infestation of the brown plant hopper is the cause for the crop failure. The science knowledge and biotechnology needed to breed resistant rice plants have been in existence for several years. However, funds were not available to mass produce these rice strains and get them into the hands of rice growers. This is one example of crop failure that, when combined with other agricultural woes, fueled food riots around the world, but especially among the poorest people in the least developed nations.

The New York Times published an article that comprehensively describes how this preventable tragedy happened – World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut. As with most sociopolitical issues, a combination of circumstances over a long period of time must be considered if one is to accurately account for the current crisis. The article conveys the history of agriculture research, including the Green Revolution of the 1960s and the great advances that emerged then. Ironically that successful movement contributed to the current lack of available funding; as agriculture problems were solved and world food supplies outpaced demand, research money was directed elsewhere.

The article, part of a series on the world’s food production, includes a nice depth and breadth of information concerning agricultural research. Several photos and related links are included.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The issues described in the news article connect to the History and Nature of Science, Life Science, Science and Technology, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standards of the National Science Education Standards. Here, we narrow our focus to the first two standards. However, this topic – world food supplies as related to agriculture and biotechnology – could easily serve as basis for an interdisciplinary unit in the middle grades.

Do any of the students have experience in growing vegetables? Ask students, what are some of the problems gardeners have to deal with in order to maintain their vegetables? What are some ways to deal with those problems? Help students to include the problem of insect pests in the discussion. Is it reasonable to assume that growers of crops on a large scale also have the same or similar problems? Can growers use the same approaches to deal with their problems that the gardener uses? Why or why not?

Ask students if they can identify one food plant, or crop, that is probably the world’s most common source of food. Consider keeping a list of all ideas and then asking the class to think carefully and critically when they answer these questions: What crop could probably be eliminated from the list, compared to the rest of the list? Why do they believe the food they are choosing to eliminate is probably not the world’s top food crop? You will hope that rice remains on the list!

Ask students to imagine that an insect has infested a large part of the world’s most important food crop. Consider putting the students in small groups in which they predict the consequences of an infestation. You might stipulate that they must have a clear prediction with logical justification for each domain: economy, culture, public health, government, military, and education. Next, ask them to articulate one or two questions that science could investigate in the hope of avoiding the consequences their group identified. For example, Which varieties of rice are most insect resistant? What other food crops can be grown in the areas where rice is currently grown? What nutritional substitutes should/could be distributed to areas where rice is in short supply? Students’ questions will vary widely and all are correct, as long as the questions can be subjected to scientific investigation and seem to point toward a solution to the stated problem.

Share with students the New York Times article, showing that such an event – insect infestation of an important crop – actually happened. Show them the pictures at the story’s web site. Inform them that the knowledge and technology necessary to prevent this disaster already exist. Ask students to speculate then on how this could have happened if people already know how to combat it. Lead them to understand the complexity of the history, funding, cultural values, and competition for funding as contributors to the situation. Finally, confirm and affirm the students’ predictions. They may have heard about food riots for example, in Africa and elsewhere. Ask them what direction they think governments and researchers should go next? Why?

As an extension, you could elaborate on the evolution aspect of the story: the way the bug has evolved through natural selection made possible by use of insecticides.

Here are additional resources from the National Science Digital Library Middle School Portal related to gardening, agriculture and natural selection: Thinking Green? Grow Your Own!; What Are Seed Banks and How Do They Work? and Dr. Saul’s Biology in Motion.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published May 21, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/19/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Green Thumb Challenge 2010

Between Feb. 1 and Aug. 31 2010, GEF (Green Education Foundation) is calling on schools and youth groups nationwide to plant 10,000 classroom and outdoor gardens – the largest youth gardening initiative in history! The Green Thumb Challenge aims to connect kids across the country with the joys and healthy benefits of gardening, providing participants with beginner-friendly resources to plant gardens of any size. Whether sowing seeds during one class period, planting bulbs in one afternoon, or planning an outdoor garden that comes back year after year, you and your students can be part of this exciting event.

All participants receive a $10 off a $50 purchase at Lowe’s, and the opportunity to be awarded a $5,000 grant in recognition of their garden project. Join youth gardening groups across the country and be part of the movement – Sign up for the Green Thumb Challenge Today!

Indoor Gardening

Agriculture is crucial to all societies, yet most middle school students have few opportunities to learn about it, beyond its origin in the Fertile Crescent. Most U.S. students attend urban or suburban schools, isolated from agriculture. Many students have no idea what a potato, tomato, bean or pea plant looks like, let alone what is needed to sustain it. Ironically, many of these students are descendants of immigrants who brought with them and cultivated old country plants, which gave some comfort in a foreign land and have contributed to contemporary America’s menu and landscape.

Student engagement with agriculture and gardening can not only fill a knowledge gap but also tap in to the affective domain regarding enjoyment, fulfillment, ethics and aesthetics. In school gardening, students will discover relationships between biotic and abiotic factors, the role of cycles such as water, carbon and nitrogen, variables in plant productivity and how best to control them, data collection and dissemination techniques, and uncertainty in scientific investigations. Produce can serve as a springboard for studies in nutrition, cooking, economics, or community service via donation to a soup kitchen, for example. School gardening offers abundant opportunities for authentic learning and assessment.

Don’t have the time or the resources for a full outdoor garden? No problem. Try any of these indoor gardening ideas to whet your students’ appetites.

Fast Plants
“To know a plant, grow a plant” is the motto of the Wisconsin Fast Plant Program, a science education outreach program from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fast Plants are in the mustard family, are small, easy to grow, and affordable, and have an incredibly short life cycle of about 40 days. From the activities page, we recommend Growth and Development and The Population Explosion.

Creating Herb Gardens: Inspiring Aromatic Adventures
Basic information on how to grow herbs in the classroom is included as well as science and history curriculum connections.

Tulipmania – Growing Flowers to Share
In this activity, students cultivate bulbs, and then practice philanthropy by giving the blooming plants to a community organization or persons of their choice. (This resource of part of the Learning to Give collection.)

Exploring Classroom Hydroponics
This guide features a synthesis of information from hydroponics experts and from people who have explored hydroponics with children in classrooms. It presents basic how-to information, suggestions for helping students discover concepts through investigations, plans for simple hydroponics setups, and stories from classrooms where students and teachers have investigated this growing technique.

We Need Your Help

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. You can also request email notification when new content is posted (see right navigation bar).

Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We want your feedback on all of the NSDL Middle School Portal science publications. Email us at