In 2018, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study confirmed that race is the most important factor in how likely it is for someone to live in a more polluted environment, more so than socioeconomic status.
This is a commonly known fact drawn from a number of studies showing the same results. However, coming from the EPA of a conservative administration, it felt like a more dramatic revelation.
Despite this persistent result—that environmental racism is real—very little has been done about it. Lack of access to clean water, good air quality, and even fresh foods, are all forms of environmental racism—the outgrowth of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and redlining confining generations of Black and Brown people to certain communities and then acting slowly or outright refusing to serve those communities. It’s one of the many reasons for the mass protests that monopolized June’s news cycle.
Biotech solutions to many forms of environmental racism are readily available. With the support of policies driven by the EPA and other government agencies, these solutions can be implemented to the benefit of ALL sectors of our society.
An obvious place to start is with plastics.
One of the major pollutants of clean water is plastic, and we know that its reliance on oil most negatively affects Black and Brown people. There is also growing research that indicates communities of color use more plastic and are less likely to have a plastic ban, which means more plastic ends up on the streets and in their water sources.
Biotech companies have been developing drop-in alternatives that can be composted, or in the case of Danimer, plastics that dissolve completely after disposal. These alternatives help keep water systems clean and dramatically decrease the reliance on petroleum-based plastics since they generally use agriculture waste in place of fossil fuels.
And fossil fuels are another big issue.
In an excellent piece for the Boston Globe, Nikayla Jefferson and Leah C. Stokes write, “The more scientists look, the more evidence they find: Our fossil fuel economy is killing Black Americans every day. New research shows that pregnant Black women are twice as likely to have stillborn babies than white mothers because of their unequal exposure to air pollution and heat waves.”
That is so disheartening and sad to read when we know there are clean alternatives on the market thanks to biotechnology. One way to reduce the use of fossil fuels like jet fuel is to replace them with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) options. Many of the SAFs under development are made from reusable waste products, like used cooking oil, animal fat, municipal solid waste, and corn leaves, stalks, and cobs. These SAFs give waste a second life and leave a smaller carbon footprint in their production.
Recently Amazon put in a 6-million-gallon order for a SAF aimed at reducing its aircrafts’ emissions by 20 percent. A high-profile endorsement such as this can start to turn the tide and increase the demand for cleaner fuel options among other big players.
Another huge benefit of biotechnology to these communities of color is food availability.
The freshest foods are in higher-income community grocery stores and low-quality produce tends to be relegated to convenience stores which are often the only available grocer in low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods.
When the pandemic struck and food appeared scarce (it wasn’t), food pantries struggled to feed all the people who suddenly needed them more than ever. On the other hand, food that had a short shelf life was disposed of. Scientists are using biotech to increase access to fresh foods by increasing available quantity, improving the shelf-life of certain produce varieties, and working on physical imperfections so that there is less food waste.
Biotechnology can’t solve everything, but its benefits to air quality, water quality, soil health, and food availability are vast and proven. Innovation can be a great equalizer in our efforts to counter social injustice.