Advances in genetic engineering test democracy’s capacity for good decision-making

N. Kofler and R. Taitingfong,  Boston Globe,  2020.

This year has tested our ability as Americans to address collective challenges. From the wildfires of the Pacific Northwest to hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on lives across the country, we are reminded, over and over, that solutions too narrow in scope, too ignorant of history, and too dismissive of communities will fail. The effects of these failures — disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and the climate crisis on communities of color — tend to fall on those left out of the decision-making process, the already structurally disenfranchised and disempowered.

This country’s failure to address the coronavirus pandemic is an example of a US history peppered with narrowly framed decisions that resulted in danger and death. Navajo Nation is still living with the adverse health and environmental impacts of Cold War-era government decisions to mine for uranium without local community consent. Black Americans still carry multigenerational trauma from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where American researchers intentionally withheld medical treatment from hundreds of non-consenting Black men to study disease progression. When decisions that impact the environment and public health don’t empower communities, human rights violations follow.

New advances in genetic engineering and their application for environmental conservation and public health are further testing our democracy’s capacity for good decision-making. With minimal public input, the Environmental Protection Agency recently approved the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas. An application for the planting of GM American Chestnut trees, engineered to reproduce and spread in the wild, is currently under review by the US Department of Agriculture. And even more complex and powerful genetic technologies intended for environmental release are in the research pipeline.

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