California Agriculture in the Classroom

Food Choices and Sustainability

Grade Level(s)

6 - 8

Estimated Time

75 minutes

Purpose

To examine the various factors that contribute to a sustainable food system and apply critical thinking when making food choices.

Materials

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

Vocabulary

pulse: the edible, dry seeds of various crops of the legume family

legume: a plant producing a seed or pod

nitrogen-fixing: the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into compounds produced by certain bacteria such as the rhizobium in the root nodules of legumes

crop rotation: the system of rotating crops grown in a specific area; an agricultural practice to manage natural resources

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

Background - Agricultural Connections

The agriculture industry is responsible for providing food, fiber (fabric), and many other necessary resources for our lives. Producing these resources requires the use of land, fertile soil, water, and other natural resources that are limited in supply. Farms provide important necessities for life, but they also have an impact on our environment. Managing and monitoring their impact is important. Environmental impacts vary according to the crops grown and the cultivation practices that are used. 

The ultimate goal behind agriculture is for it to be sustainable. In other words, to have a planet that will accommodate the basic needs of its present inhabitants while preserving the resources that will enable future generations to flourish.3  Exactly how sustainable agriculture is practiced is not easy to determine or define. Opinions and theories vary widely. However, there are key elements that can be identified in some crops. Pulse crops are widely considered a crop with minimal environmental impact.

Pulses are the edible, dry seeds of plants in the legume family. Examples of pulses include dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas, cow peas, pigeon peas, lentils, Bambara beans, vetches, and lupins. Pulses grow within a pod that can vary in shape, size, and color. Pulse pods can contain between one and 12 grains, or "seeds" depending on the plant variety.

As part of the legume family, the growth of pulses improves the quality of farm land by returning nitrogen to the soil through a process called nitrogen-fixing. Plants within the legume family contain symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia within the nodules of their root system. When the plant dies, the fixed nitrogen is released which fertilizes the soil and makes it available to other plants. As a result, pulses are a beneficial crop to include in a crop rotation to manage and balance soil nutrients. Watch the video, Science of Nitrogen Fixation to learn more about the discovery of nitrogen fixation by George Washington Carver and the benefits of crop rotation.

In this lesson, students will:

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Conduct a four corners activity with students. Post a sign in each corner of the classroom saying one of the following words: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree. Inform students that they are going to identify what type of impact specific actions have on the environment. Read the following statements and give students the chance to move to the corner, which describes their thinking.
    • Driving a car has a negative impact on the environment
    • Watching TV has a negative impact on the environment
    • Littering has a negative impact on the environment
    • Eating has a negative impact on the environment
  2. Allow students to share their thoughts for each of the statements. Draw attention to the last statement about eating and the environment. Do food choices have an impact on the environment? Ask students to brainstorm ways that food choices may have an impact on the environment. (transportation, fertilizer use, water use, packaging, production methods, etc.)

Procedures

  1. Ask students if they have heard of the term ‘sustainable food’. As a class, develop a draft definition. Other than environmental factors, what else would need to be considered for a food to be sustainable? Provide assistance and guidance to students as required:
    • "What about the people who grow the food? Is food ‘sustainable’ if the farmers aren’t paid fairly" (economic)?
    • "Is food ‘sustainable’ if consumers cannot access it (social)?"
    • "Is food ‘sustainable’ if it is not healthy for the people who consume it (health/social)?"
  2. Share Appendix A with students and highlight the various components of sustainability. As a class, develop a final definition of sustainability.
    • Differentiation: Have students explore the connections between sustainability and food security (availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability, sustainability). Students could insert the food security terms into the sustainability Venn diagram in Appendix A.
  3. Go over the Food Sustainability infographic with students. Discuss the information presented. Ask students to provide some examples of food choices they could make which would be more sustainable (e.g. eating pulses and legumes often; consuming local vegetables; looking for Fair Trade products, etc.)
  4. Introduce the activity outlined in Appendix B. Students will use information on the infographic, along with their own critical thinking skills to make sustainable food choices. They are to consider factors related to the environment, health, and economics. There are a variety of ways to facilitate this activity, based on student ability. Ideas include:
    • Break class into groups and assign each a scenario.
    • Do the activity as a class and have the students vote for their selections.
    • Set up as stations where students rotate through all examples.
    • Assign the scenarios to individual students and have them prepare a written or oral statement on their choices.
  5. Provide students with card 1, giving students their first piece of information about the choice they are asked to make. Have them make their choice assuming all other factors are equal and have them justify their choice.
  6. Next, hand out card number 2 and have students re-evaluate their choice. Last, hand out card number 3 and again have students re-evaluate and make their final decision. Remind students that this activity is about using critical thinking and reasoning skills. There is no right or wrong answer.
  7. Come together and discuss.
    • "What was each student’s final choice?"
    • "Does the final choice meet all of the requirements of sustainability?"
    • "Is it realistic for a food choice to be ‘perfectly’ sustainable?"
    • "How do they ‘prioritize’ the different areas of sustainability when making their choices?"
    • "Are they still happy with their definition of sustainability?"
  8. Discuss how there are many aspects of sustainability and that it can be hard to make food choices. What other factors influence the choices they make (taste, convenience etc)? How important is making a sustainable food choice to them?
  9. Discuss why their choices matter. Have students identify some tips which they can use to consider sustainability when making their choices as consumers.
    • Differentiation: Have students identify questions they could ask in each of the scenarios to help them acquire more information about the food product (e.g. asking a farmer at a farmers market what actions they take to protect the environment; asking a grocery store manager if they deal with local producers, or wholesalers).

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

Enriching Activities

Suggested Companion Resources

Sources/Credits

This activity is adapted from Ontario Agri-Food Education’s Local Food Teacher Ambassador lesson.

  1. http://www.scidev.net/global/food-security/feature/sustainable-food-production-facts-and-figures.html
  2. http://pulses.org/future-of-food/pulses-sustainable-food
  3. http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/sustainable-agriculture-definitions-and-terms-1

Author(s)

Agriculture in the Classroom Canada and Pulse Canada

Organization Affiliation

Agriculture in the Classroom Canada and Pulse Canada