Chapter 5

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Chapter 5: Environmental Technologies

A Safer Food Supply
There is almost universal agreement that the food we eat today is safer than that of any previous time. When
we bite into a hamburger or munch on fresh fruits and vegetables, we are not generally putting our health at risk. This is largely a tribute to our nation’s food production system, which reduces the possibility of exposing us to harmful pathogens or chemicals, all the way from farm to table. Although our food supply is one of the world’s safest, we still need to do better. Every year far too many people, especially the very young and the elderly, become ill or die as a result of contaminated food.

Recent advances have helped scientists better understand the role of pathogens in food contamination, creating new opportunities to improve the safety of our food supply. There is a new emphasis on preventing contamination throughout the entire production process, rather than simply inspecting food at the end of the cycle. Tests for pathogenic bacteria that once took days to complete now take minutes. Researchers are developing biosensors that will be used to indicate whether a product on the shelf in the store is suitable for consumption. With research efforts such as these tied to strong regulatory programs, we can expect to see a significant reduction in cases of foodborne illnesses over the next decade.

When contaminated foods do cause illness, new tools help us control those threats. For example, thanks to breakthroughs in computer networking technology and genomics, we are now able to track the DNA fingerprint of specific pathogens — the telltale genetic code that proves the identity of a contaminating organism. With that information in hand, we can quickly determine whether its appearance is related to other outbreaks and even whether separate incidents can be traced to the same source in the food supply and distribution chain.

East Side, West Side, All Around the Watershed

New York City has had a long tradition of supplying clean municipal water. New York’s water, which originates in the Catskill Mountains, was once bottled and sold throughout the Northeast. In recent years, sewage and agricultural runoff have overwhelmed the Catskills’ natural ecological purification system, and water quality dropped below EPA standards. This prompted New York City’s administration to investigate the cost of replacing the natural system with an artificial filtration plant. The estimated price tag for this installation was
$6 to 8 billion in capital costs, plus annual operating costs of $300 million — a high price for a commodity that was once virtually free.

Further investigation showed that the cost of restoring the integrity of the watershed’s natural purification processes would be a small fraction of the cost of a filtration plant — about $1 billion. The city chose the less costly alternative, raising an environmental bond issue in 1997. It is now using these funds to purchase and halt development on land in the watershed, to compensate landowners for restrictions on private development, and to subsidize the improvement of septic systems.

In this case, a financial mechanism has helped to recapture some of the economic and public health benefits of a natural capital asset, the Catskills watershed. The full economic and ecological value is much greater, however, since conserving the Catskills ecosystem for water purification will also protect its other benefits, including tourism and recreation, flood control, and wildlife and fisheries. Such financial mechanisms can
be applied in other geographic locations and other ecosystems to benefit municipalities and habitats throughout the nation.

Food Technologies of the Future
New technologies may soon be used to engineer functional foods to be eaten for specific needs. Vitamin A-rich produce will be grown in developing countries, where a deficiency of this nutrient causes a half-million children each year to become permanently blind. Future “nutraceuticals” will likely include staple foods, such as potatoes and bananas, genetically engineered to contain vaccines that will stimulate human antibodies against disease.

Advances in food technologies promise to continue today’s trends toward healthier food, available in a wider variety of convenient forms, delivered more safely to our table, and produced with less impact on the environment. The farmer will remain at the center of our food production system, but increasingly science and technology will give farmers — and consumers — new confidence in a bountiful harvest.

During the past 30 years, environmental science has dramatically altered our perception of the relationships between human activity and the natural environment. Back in the 1950s, it would have seemed absurd
to suggest that humans could in any way alter the global cycles that sustain life on our planet. In particular, the oceans and the atmosphere — our two global commons — seemed to be inexhaustible resources whose very vastness made them invulnerable to influence by humans.

Today we know this view was wrong. Global population has more than tripled over the last century, and human expectations have risen steadily. Consumption of natural resources by the industrialized world has risen to heights undreamed of even a few decades ago. In just a global instant, the world has ceased being “wild.” It is estimated that humans now consume or divert nearly half of the net plant productivity of the land, use more than half
of the available fresh water, and significantly modify the composition of the atmosphere. Environmental science has given us a better understanding of the complexity of the Earth’s environment and its sensitivity to stresses caused by a growing human population. It has also revealed much about human dependence on the healthy functioning of those ecosystems for food, timber, clean water, medicine, and recreation. But we are still learning painful lessons; for example, the devastating floods that China suffered in 1998 were partly a result of extensive deforestation in critical watersheds.

New Markets for Energy Technologies

Currently, fossil fuels provide more than 75 percent of the world energy supply. However, researchers expect the next century to bring strong new growth in development of renewable energy technologies — such as wind power, photovoltaic cells, and biomass — that are friendlier to the environment. Over the longer term, these “renewables” will be economically competitive with fossil-fuel technologies.

Developing countries around the world are expected to play a particularly prominent role in the rise of renewable energy technologies. In fact, over the next two decades, more than half of global energy growth will be in developing and reforming economies. Between now and 2050, investments in developing countries in new energy technologies are projected to reach a level between $15 trillion and
$25 trillion. Additional investments in energy efficiency are expected to be on a similar scale as these countries create their buildings, industry, and transport infrastructures.

This dynamic new global market for energy technologies will likely stimulate new, perhaps even revolutionary, energy technologies that will allow us to continue improving the quality of human life while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and their associated environmental dangers. This market also represents a remarkable opportunity for American businesses, if they are ready with the technologies that emerging economies demand. Federal funding of research to fill the gaps in private-sector investment can achieve significant benefits for the United States.

The Goal of Sustainability
New knowledge has led to a new emphasis on developing sustainable uses of natural resources. The challenge is to enable development — including economic growth — without harming the natural environment. Sustainability requires consideration of complex interactions: maintaining biological diversity, safe water resources, and air quality; protecting the population from toxic substances and natural hazards; reversing stratospheric ozone depletion; and understanding, mitigating, and adapting to climate change.

Developing sustainable practices requires a comprehensive scientific understanding of the environment and the development of innovative and creative new technologies to help solve those problems. There is no better example of this process than the story of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As early as the 1960s, scientists were beginning to understand that these industrial chemicals — widely used because of their many desirable chemical properties — pose a threat to the thin layer of stratospheric ozone that protects life on Earth from dangerous levels of cancer- causing ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As this threat was more fully documented, scientists and engineers from the government and the private sector helped solve the problem by developing safer, less ozone-destructive substitutes for CFCs. Thanks to those efforts, the world was able to sharply reduce CFC use years earlier than originally thought possible. Today, those efforts are paying off: atmospheric measurements show that levels of CFCs in the stratosphere are already leveling off.

Partnerships for a Cleaner Environment

Partnerships among government, industry, and educational institutions can generate new technologies that will grow our economy and help our environment at the same time. The Federal government has taken
a leadership role in initiating partnerships designed to fulfill all of these objectives.

The Partnership for Advancing Technologies in Housing (PATH), for example, links key agencies in
the Federal government with leaders from the home building, product manufacturing, insurance, financial and regulatory communities in a unique partnership focused on technological innovation in the American housing industry. The goals of the partnership include cutting the environmental impact and energy use of new housing by 50 percent or more. The five PATH National Pilot projects are Village Green and Playa Vista, in Los Angeles; Civano, in Tucson; Stapleton Airport, in Denver; and Summerset, in Pittsburgh. These programs serve as models for the U.S. construction and housing industry because of their new approaches to land planning and design and their incorporation of highly innovative technologies.

In the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), different sectors are combining forces to unlock new technologies that will develop a new class of vehicles with a fuel efficiency of up to 80 miles per gallon and maintain performance, safety, and cost comparable to today’s cars. PNGV joins seven Federal agencies and 19 Federal laboratories with the U.S. Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), which represents Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. The PNGV partnership ultimately will help create new jobs, improve global competitiveness, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

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