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.
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
nations 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 worlds 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
New York City has had a long tradition of supplying
clean municipal water. New Yorks 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 Citys 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 watersheds 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
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 todays
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
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 Earths 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
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
Additional investments in energy efficiency are expected to be on a similar
scale as these countries create their buildings, industry, and transport
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
leadership role in initiating partnerships designed to fulfill all of these
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
todays 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.