NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Institute of Medicine (US) Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine; Merchant J, Coussens C, Gilbert D, editors. Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment in Rural America: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006.

Cover of Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment in Rural America

Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment in Rural America: Workshop Summary.

Show details

3The Role of the Natural Environment in Rural America*

The entire upper Midwest, including Iowa, is unique because of its intensive agricultural operations. Approximately 90 percent of Iowa’s land is now used for agriculture; about two-thirds of this land is used for row crop agriculture, and the remaining is used for grazing (Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 2001). Agriculture provides an economic base for Iowa residents, but at the same time it also has significant environmental impacts. People had a connection to their land, and in rural America they still do, but the land and the water are changing, said Jerald Schnoor of the University of Iowa.

The change started quite early after settlement, beginning in about 1850. When the land was tilled for farming, it became vulnerable to soil and water erosion. In addition, natural habitat has been destroyed to make way for agricultural development. In fact, Iowa is the most ecologically altered state in the entire union; since 1850, it has lost 99 percent of its prairies, 95 percent of its wetlands have been drained, and 75 percent of its forests have been cut (Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, 2002). Today’s agricultural farming practices are under a lot of scrutiny, and World Trade Organization negotiations that will have major implications for U.S. agricultural production and production policy on cotton, sugar, and possibly rice are under way.


Colonization of the United States by Europeans has inflicted a dramatic transformation on the environment. Colonization, which took place primarily over the last half of the 19th century, was preceded by intensive, methodical surveys. Those early surveys allowed the type of land resources that existed in Iowa before colonization to be seen. Iowa began to be colonized in a gradient that began in the southeastern extreme and then migrated along river channels to the northwestern part of the state. The surveys of that period indicate that roughly 20 percent of the area of the state was covered in forest or forest openings, and most of the remaining land was different types of grasslands and wetlands (USGS, NPWRC, 2005). Since the beginning of Iowa’s colonization, the ecological transformation has been dramatic. At one time a diverse mix of agricultural species was produced in the state, including about 10 different livestock species and about 30 different crops. The picture today is very different. Ecologically, the system went from that originally encountered by the Europeans—a grassy plain with a complex ecological system similar to that of the Serengeti Plains of Africa—to a simple ecological system but a very complex and highly specialized industrial system, said Ricardo Salvador of Iowa State University.

The system primarily produces two row crop products—corn and soybeans—which are essentially managed as a unit that makes up the row cropping system in Iowa. The soybean crop entered the state in the 1930s and has essentially replaced oats. No state in the country has anywhere near the ecological simplicity of the row crop mixture that Iowa does, said Salvador. With the introduction of modern technology, machinery, pesticides, and fertilizers, the state’s agricultural productivity increased from an average of 30 to 182 bushels of corn per acre. However, this gain has not been without trade-offs, noted Salvador. For example, the industrial system of production initially increased soil erosion rates dramatically. In addition, the production of nitrogen for use in fertilizers is energy intensive, as its synthesis requires high pressures and temperatures, but massive amounts of nutrients like nitrogen must be imported to support the row cropping system in this area. These nutrients go through the crop and livestock production systems and end up in the environment, including watersheds, which are susceptible to contamination by imported nutrients. Humans are accustomed to having a natural environment that has a large buffering capacity, and the cognitive behavior of humans suggests that this will continue because historically the environment has always absorbed human waste products. Now, however, the fluxes of these materials are so abundant that the environment is not diluting human waste products to safe levels quickly enough, and there is a lag in recognizing the impacts of this important feature of the system, concluded Salvador.

Wackernagel and Reese (1996) developed a technique to analyze the ecological footprint of urban areas, noted Salvador. The technique has been widely adapted and applied by urban planners. There are four items in ecological footprint: consumed land, built land, energy land (energy consumed within each of consumption categories), and service land (service consumption is translated into land area equivalents based on the resource consumption). The concept of an ecological footprint is based on the premises that (1) any population’s consumption of food, housing, transportation, infrastructure, consumer goods, and services can be measured; (2) the population’s consumption can be translated into land area equivalent necessary to produce, transport, and dispose of food, housing, transportation, and consumer goods; (3) the total number of acres used to produce the consumed resources and to dispose of the wastes equals that population’s ecological footprint.

This ecological footprint technique was adapted to measure agricultural productivity as well, noted Salvador. If one were to measure the productivity of an area in Iowa before it became specialized for industrial agriculture, one would take the sum of all of the different types of plant biomass that existed and divide that over the area where that biomass was produced. That ratio would give the primary productivity of that area in the ecological sense, said Salvador.

The technique for measurement of agricultural productivity estimates only one component of the total ecological footprint of agriculture, however. In 1987, the footprint of the Iowa row crop equaled the actual area in production plus an increment of 27 percent of that area. Ecological footprint assessments were done in 1987, 1992, and 1997, and it appeared that industrial farmers in the region had been decreasing their footprints. In 1997, the footprint was 23 percent of the area in production, a negative 14.8 percent change (Figure 3-1). Therefore, Salvador concluded, it is apparent that all components of the ecological footprint are decreasing. This reflects increases in the internal efficiency of the industrial production system, primarily because of the use of herbicides to replace machinery and fuel for tillage and weed control.

FIGURE 3-1. Assessments show that industrial farmers of the region have been decreasing all the components of their footprints.


Assessments show that industrial farmers of the region have been decreasing all the components of their footprints. SOURCE: R. Salvador, unpublished data.

As with other industrial production systems, the increase in agricultural productivity reflects a particular use of energy to boost specific transformations. In terms of the industrial system’s long-term viability, it is noteworthy that the source of energy that accounts for its productivity gains is fossil fuel, which is used consumptively. Therefore, systems that minimize ecological impacts and that transition agricultural practice to a new phase that features more renewable energy transformations must be the target of agroecologists and agricultural scientists.


When driving around the middle of the United States looking at farms, one would think that they do not appear much different from the way they did 40 or 60 years ago. Although changes are not obvious by looking at the countryside, U.S. agriculture has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past century-and-a-half, said Neil Harl of Iowa State University. Although part of the transformation has been institutional, much of it has come from technology—seed and genetics technology and power technology.

Since 1935 there has been an unbroken succession of reductions in the number of farms in the United States and increases in the average size of farms. In 1900, the average size of a farm was 118 acres. This average increased to 156 acres by 1925, 282 acres in 1969, and 352 acres at present. The present average size, however, is deceptive, because the increase in size of the large farms has been weighted down by the many small farms of less than 100 acres (Figure 3-2) (USDA, KASS, 2003).

FIGURE 3-2. Number of farms and average farm size in the United States from 1920 to 2000.


Number of farms and average farm size in the United States from 1920 to 2000. SOURCE: USDA, KASS (2003).

Another way to capture the change in agriculture is to look at the percent change in sales rather than farm size. The number of Iowa farms with sales of more than $1 million increased 45 percent just in the period from 1997 to 2002; the number with sales between $0.5 million and $1 million grew by 12 percent. All other categories with sales of less than $0.5 million showed a decline. Clearly, farms are getting larger, and the amount of their sales is increasing as well, said Harl.

Since 1935, there has been an unbroken succession of reductions in the number of farms in the United States and increases in the average size of farms.

—Neil Harl

Traditionally, roughly one-half of Iowa’s farmed land has been farmed by those who own it and roughly one-half has been rented and farmed by a tenant. Rental agreements are primarily cash or crop share. The proportion of land that is owned by those who farm it has declined in recent years. The organizational structure has not changed much, however. Sole proprietorships accounted for 77 percent of farms in 1969 and just under 87 percent of farms in 2002. The number of partnerships declined slightly whereas the number of corporations increased slightly. The preferred structures of land ownership have been the limited liability partnership, the limited liability company, and the limited partnership. Farmers have learned that if their land is put into a corporation, it is very costly to take it out of a corporation structure later; therefore, this structure is no longer as popular as it was a few decades ago, noted Harl.

The Impact of Technology

The most evident change in farms has been the significant impact of technology. For example, in the mid-1930s a typical farmer had a corn yield of 40–60 bushels per acre (with open pollination). After a change in the use of hybrid seed was made, however, the yield jumped to 60 to 80 bushels per acre. In 2003, as a result of seed and genetics technology and favorable weather, yields reached levels of 220–260 bushels per acre on some farms.

The other element has been power technology, which consisted of a dramatic substitution of capital for labor that set the stage for larger and larger farms. Horses were exchanged for tractors, and harvesting by hand—and later threshing—was replaced by harvesting with combines. The number of hours of labor per 100 bushels of corn and soybeans was also dramatically reduced from more than 40 and 54 hours per 100 bushels of soybeans and corn, respectively, in 1940, to such minuscule amounts in 1998 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, considering them meaningless, ceased to keep statistics on them.

Economic Impact

Some problems facing American agriculture deserve examination, said Harl. Federal price and income policies, for example, have resulted in landowners being the major beneficiaries of federal subsidies, many of which are built into cash units and capitalized into land values. However, the largest beneficiary of this policy has been consumers, who have also benefited from federal subsidies as commodity prices have been reduced.

The United States has put in place one of the most intricate systems of benefit delivery to the consumer that anyone could have devised. Hence, when food is produced against an inelastic demand curve—a curve that is nearly vertical—and output is increased, the reward is a disproportionate drop in price and profitability to producers and a dip in food prices for consumers, noted Harl. Over the years, supply increases from ever-increasing yields have systematically squeezed the producer and delivered benefits to the consumer in the form of lower and lower food prices. The current low food prices and the architecture of the 1996 and 2002 Farm Bills have produced a situation in which commodities have been sold at less than the cost of production, with the U.S. Treasury making up part of the difference in producer income. The latter does not do much to remedy the basic problem, which is that producers are always being squeezed by the system, with the Treasury making up part of that difference in income through subsidies.

This situation is causing problems worldwide as well. When U.S. agricultural output increases as much as it has, not only U.S. prices but also world prices are driven down, cautioned Harl. Although the difference in lost income to the U.S. producer is made up to some degree, other countries cannot or will not make up that difference to their producers. As a result, the first hit is in land value in Third World countries, where it is already very low in relation to U.S. land values. Then returns to labor are affected, to the point where many small producers—that is, peasant producers—cannot function, which, in turn, has fueled a resistance to the removal of trade barriers. Consequently, over the past few years U.S. policy not only has squeezed U.S. producers to give the benefits to consumers, but also has systematically driven down prices worldwide and created a resistance to trade and, as some believe, created barriers to economic development.

Environmental Health Impact

The largest problems facing American agriculture at present are not fatal and nonfatal injuries, which show steady declines, but environmental health issues, noted Harl. Specifically, one of the areas in current farming that has caused a great deal of policy concern nationally and in Iowa is the environmental impact of animal production because of the rapid increases in the number of confinement operations. Although cattle-raising operations are not as numerous in Iowa as they are farther west, Iowa has five counties—the largest hog producers in the state—that have more hogs than Iowa has people: 3.3 million hogs. Given that a hog produces roughly twice as much waste as a human, the hogs in those five counties produce more waste than all of Iowa’s human population (USDA, NASS, 2002). The 2002 agricultural census indicates that the hog farm capacity, in terms of inventory—which now consists of a thousand or more hogs per farm—has increased so much that there is now a very large move toward large-capacity confinement operations. Smaller producers—those who do not have much of an impact on the environment—have been losing ground for the past 20 years.

The largest problems facing American agriculture at present are not fatal and nonfatal injuries, which show steady declines, but environmental health issues.

—Neil Harl

Hogs raised from birth to market in confinement units—hog finishing buildings—imply cost externalities in farm stream pollution, odors, and waste disposal. Several solutions to these concerns have been proposed. One of them would be to develop an ethic, “thou shall not pollute,” said Harl, by

  • developing an ethic of environmental preservation,
  • imposing legal constraints,
  • creating economic incentives, and
  • facilitating bargaining between and among parties.

Future Prospects

In the future, approximately, the next 70 or 80 years, farming will be affected by two main forces, and neither of them is technology, said Harl. These forces are international trade and Third World economic development coupled with international competitiveness.

With regard to the first force, international trade, a theorem in economics postulates that if totally free trade is achieved so that goods move without limitation across boundaries, capital will move freely as well; and if technology were equally available everywhere, there would be a trend toward equal returns to labor and land of the same quality everywhere. That means a leveling effect around the world if the quality of the land and labor was equal everywhere. It follows, then, that to avoid the leveling effect, the country should be investing more in education and those things that affect the quality of labor. The biggest factor that would affect the quality of labor would be improving the level of health. In this respect, if one asks whether the relative health position of people in rural areas has deteriorated compared with that of urban Americans over the past 80 years, the answer is probably affirmative. The U.S. agricultural sector has certainly lost people, and this loss will likely continue to put pressure on rural health care and delivery systems.

The international competitiveness effect relates to outsourcing. Anything that is mobile today is coming under pressure to be outsourced to another part of the world where labor costs are lower. However, although U.S. jobs are being lost to locations overseas in many industries, this is not likely to affect crop production because climate and soils are not mobile. On the other hand, although livestock are mobile and their production could be moved overseas, it is unlikely that this will happen because livestock production is tethered rather tightly to the cost of feed grains, and the lowest-cost feed grains in the world are in the United States. Therefore, international competitiveness could well benefit American agriculture in the sense that if trade policy continues to favor free trade, it could increase the demand for food worldwide. This not only would be good for U.S. agriculture but also would help alleviate world hunger and eliminate one of the causes of disharmony in the world, concluded Harl.


Some agricultural production practices have direct health effects, said Mark Ritchie of the Institute of Agricultural and Trade Policy. For example, an estimated 70 percent of antibiotics are used for nontherapeutic purposes in intensive livestock production; therefore, the risk of contracting an antibiotic-resistant infection could increase for somebody working in an intensive hog-rearing barn. As a result, insurance companies may have to pay the bill for antibiotic resistance, including the extremely expensive alternative therapies that may be necessary to overcome infections caused by antibiotic-resistant microorganisms. Other farming practices have more indirect effects on health, noted Ritchie, but they affect the environment—the air, the water, and the soil. Furthermore, production practices can affect food qualityand have other effects brought about by processing and consumption. For example, workers in meat-packing plants can be infected with tuberculosis as a result of contact with animals.

The question of the unity of health and the environment can be a guide for assembling the political coalitions that are needed to bring about policy changes, noted Ritchie. For example, many people are interested in the shift to a grass-based feeding approach in dairy production. This particularly interests people in the shrimp and fishing industries off the coast of Louisiana. The intensive growth of corn for cattle feed in the Midwest deposits more nutrients and soil into the Mississippi River, which ultimately affects fish off Louisiana’s coast. Many people involved in the dairy industry, as well as people who are breeding new, highly nutritious grasses, people interested in animal welfare, hunters, and even bird-watchers, are helping to make the transition from intensive feeding to cattle grazing, noted Ritchie. A shift to grazing has multiple health benefits both from a mental health standpoint, derived from improvements in family life, and from the perspective of physical health benefits, said Ritchie.

Sizable benefits to the environment and biodiversity, as well as human and animal health, can be achieved by exploring new agricultural production methods, such as integrated pest management and organic production, which lead to the use of less pesticide. A number of coalitions are forming in this arena. For example, many restaurants, food stores, and food suppliers are trying to find more affordable organic food supplies that would make organic foods more competitive in the larger food market.

The question of the unity of health and the environment can be a guide for assembling political coalitions that are needed to bring about policy changes.

—Mark Ritchie

However, there are many barriers to finding unity and creating the political coalitions necessary to affect policy change. The opposition to the proposed changes in farming practices is strong, asserted Ritchie. One of the more popular responses among the opposition is to say that a particular approach is inadequate—for example, “We have to feed the world, so we need chemical fertilizers to achieve target production levels” or “We have to be competitive and therefore cannot take time to care for the environment or pay the externalized costs.” The power of the standard model of agricultural practices—particularly the embedded notion of the inevitability of some of these practices—is overwhelming for those who have been farming for years and who are then asked to make changes, said Ritchie.

Aside from opposition to changes, elements of agricultural practices may also make change difficult. For example, genetic contamination of seed stocks, extensive topsoil damage, or groundwater contamination can make organic production impossible.

There are links between how the policy drives the pricing and how the pricing drives the formulation and preparation of foods. Abundant knowledge about production practices and how they are linked to various health questions is available, but little is known about the links between policies, particularly the Farm Bill and agricultural policy, and how the food reaches the table and what it does to people. An inventory of what is known—perhaps in the form of an audit—is needed so that what is not known can be revealed. For example, the Central American Free Trade Agreement would dramatically lower the price of sugar in the United States. The question is whether such an outcome would move the United States in the direction of better public health, given the propensity for food producers to use sugar as an additive or filler in various processed foods.

Issues such as antibiotic resistance and other health- or environment-related issues can be given a place in an environment–health section of the Farm Bill and can be evaluated, for example, as built-in studies. However, to do this it will be necessary for individuals interested in these issues to become more political, said Ritchie. There is an opportunity for people with health credentials, experience, and a background and jobs in the medical and health care sectors to be spokespeople.

To address some of the most central public health, social, and political issues confronting the nation, the manner in which food is produced on the nation’s lands must be addressed. The area in which a difference can be made is in the unity of the environment and health, since upper limits exist on how much humans can damage their own health and the environment and how much this nation can go into debt under the current scenario, concluded Ritchie.


In the book History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1836–1882 (Iowa City, Iowa, 1883), the Iowa River water is described as follows: “Old settlers say that the Iowa River used to be a clear stream except during high water, but now it is always muddy or slimy, and stones or boulders lying in the water that used to be clean are now found to be invested with a coating of nasty, slimy sediment from the unclean water. The plowing and cultivation of the land causes more loose soil and vegetable debris to be washed into the river than could be washed in from the prairie sod.”

In Iowa, 7 tons of soil is lost per acre, and each acre yields about 150 bushels of corn, said Jerald Schnoor of the University of Iowa (NRC, 1986). Consequently, for every pound of corn produced, the land loses approximately 2 pounds of topsoil sediment and farmers are actually “exporting” 2 pounds of soil annually for every pound of corn harvested. On the basis of this calculation, Iowa has lost approximately half of its topsoil since presettlement times. These extensive changes in land cover and land use cause changes in water quality through runoff, asserted Schnoor.

The Mississippi River watershed covers about two-thirds of the United States, that is, 31 of the 48 continental states; the flux of nitrate from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico has nearly tripled in the past 30 years; and the principal sources of that nitrate are streams draining largely agricultural watersheds in southern Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio (USGS, 2005). Increasing nitrate concentrations in the Iowa River, which feeds into the Mississippi River, mirrors closely the applications of nitrogen to Iowa farmland. Nitrogen flows from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and currents pull the nutrients west from the mouth of the river, causing hypoxia—low oxygen conditions, or less than 2 milligrams of nutrients per liter—along the U.S. coast in the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 3-3). A section of the Gulf of Mexico about the size of New Jersey currently suffers from hypoxia. These conditions affect the shrimping industry and the livelihoods of people who make use of the water and the coastal margins in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

FIGURE 3-3. Extent of hypoxia in midsummer in the Gulf of Mexico from 1995 to 1999.


Extent of hypoxia in midsummer in the Gulf of Mexico from 1995 to 1999. SOURCE: Rabalais et al. (2001).

Rural residents are also affected by water quality because they are drinking water from their own wells, which are not subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act, noted Schnoor. Shallow groundwater wells less than 50 feet in depth are commonly contaminated with pesticides, nutrients, industrial chemicals, and various volatile organic carbon compounds (USGS, NAWQA, 2005). According to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data, nitrate concentrations exceed the maximum contaminant level—that is, 10 milligrams per liter—in about half of all the groundwater sampled below agricultural areas (USGS, NAWQA, 2005). Additionally, agricultural pesticides are commonly detected in groundwater in both agricultural and urban areas, but most of the time they do not exceed the maximum contaminant levels. Another recurring problem is that an increasing number of potentially toxic pesticides, such as diazenon, are detected in urban areas as a result of pesticide application on lawns and golf courses.

Radon is a naturally occurring geochemical that is particularly common in the Midwest. Iowa in particular has high concentrations of radon because of its thick and dense soils. Half of all water samples taken from the Jordan aquifer are in violation of the radon standard safety levels, noted Schnoor.

Among other chemicals that have an effect on people who live in rural areas are polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which accumulate in breast milk; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); and mercury. PCBs and mercury are neurobehavioral agents that especially affect unborn and young children. Some 7.8 percent of the women of childbearing age in the United States have in their blood and sera levels of mercury higher than those recommended as safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). People who have a great deal of fish in their diet, which includes many rural Americans and Native American tribes, are much more vulnerable to mercury exposure. Perchlorate contamination of groundwater is also an issue in 23 states, mostly in rural areas. These emerging contaminants and concerns are new to agriculture, especially because of the expanded animal feeding operations and the pharmaceuticals and antibiotics used in those operations.

Conservation tillage practices are having a positive effect in the Midwest. The total levels of suspended solids in the Iowa River, as well as the total levels of phosphorus in other rivers, have declined as a result of the increased use of conservation tillage practices. Studies show that a 50 percent decrease in soil delivery can be achieved with low-till agriculture. Other practices that are more expensive but very effective include terracing, grass waterways, and contour farming. Despite improvements, the concentrations of solids and sediments in water are still too high. These solids and sediments cover habitats and are responsible for aquatic impairments in much of the waterways. However, with some resolve in the form of the Conservation Reserve Program and a Farm Bill that dates back to 1985, some progress is beginning to be seen, but much more progress is needed, asserted Schnoor.

Future Challenges

Water availability is becoming a challenge in the traditionally water-rich Midwest. With continued groundwater use, both water quantity and water quality issues arise, suggested Schnoor. Even though irrigated agriculture is not commonly practiced in the Midwest, aquifer storage and recharge are becoming common in Des Moines, Iowa; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Water is beginning to be reused, and eventually it will affect agriculture in the western United States. Overpumping of aquifers is a significant concern locally, nationally, and globally, asserted Schnoor. People will need to stop thinking of wastewater practices and water supply practices as separate. Rather, they are all part of the same hydrologic cycle. Therefore, after water is withdrawn for use in urban areas and agriculture, it is put back onto the land and becomes a part of the aquifer and the water resource system, which must not be polluted and contaminated.

Air quality has generally improved in rural America because of the Clean Air Act, noted Schnoor, but challenges remain, such as occupational exposures to dust, windblown soil, ammonia, pesticides (especially those from animal feeding operations), endotoxins, mycotoxins, animal dander, hydrogen sulfite, and ammonia, odor, and particles.

Global warming will also affect rural populations and agriculture, noted Schnoor. According to predictions of the Union of Concerned Scientists, winters in Iowa are going to become drier and warmer, much like those in Kansas, and summers are going to be much wetter and warmer, much like those in Arkansas, as a result of climate change.

Schnoor concluded that air and water quality have improved in rural America, but changes are still needed. Agriculture is a regulated industry now, and farmers are recognizing that they need incentives that will pay for good environmental practices in the future.


Consumers in the United States are dependent on electricity; it powers not only their possessions but also their lives, said Erroll Davis, chief executive officer of Alliant Energy. The electric utility industry, however, is essentially an old-line industry that is trying to be largely responsible for powering a new economy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. energy demand continues to grow each year by about 1 percent to 2 percent (EIA, 2005). Davis pointed out that as the demand for electricity continues to grow, the energy business has a dilemma: how to respond to the increasing energy needs while responding to both present and future environmental needs. A 1 percent increase in energy demand means about 10,000 megawatts of new capacity per year, the equivalent of two new companies the size of Alliant Energy annually. The industry’s dilemma is to protect and sustain the country’s natural resources while providing the increased energy needed to meet the needs and demands of the customers and at the same time trying to replace an increasingly aging infrastructure. Whether the energy comes from a large coal-fired power plant, a nuclear power plant, a wind farm, a series of gas-fired combustion turbines, or a hydroelectric facility, it will affect the environment, said Davis.

To meet the challenge of providing cost-effective, affordable, and environmentally responsive energy, the company created a balanced portfolio of fuels and generation sources that meet the needs of its customers. Coal is the country’s most abundant fossil fuel and the backbone of the electric utility industry. There is more energy in coal reserves in the United States than in the entire oil reserves of the Middle East. Coal churns out between 50 percent and 60 percent of the electricity in the United States. It is cheap and plentiful, it works, and the industry knows how to use it. However, it is also the most environmentally challenging fuel source. Even though the industry understands the environmental challenges related to the use of coal, it cannot stop using it. However, steps can be taken to reduce the emissions of coal-burning facilities.

Natural gas is a cleaner-burning alternative to coal; however, gas-fired facilities have efficiency problems. Also, gas is costly and its markets are increasingly volatile. Nuclear power is the source of up to 20 percent of energy in the United States, and its use results in better environmental outcomes than the use of coal or natural gas. Nuclear power plants have virtually no airborne emissions. However, nuclear power has its own challenges; the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are firmly etched into history and into the minds of people as well, noted Davis.

Alliant Energy has taken an active role in developing renewable energy through biomass projects, that is, programs that make use of farm or industrial by-products or waste. However, biomass projects typically do not get the same publicity and exposure that wind programs do, said Davis. The company’s main focus is on farm digester projects, in which it taps the energy potential of methane from animal waste. Digester systems typically reduce the odor from livestock waste by 95 percent to 98 percent, while at the same time eliminating greenhouse gas, methane, which is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (Atcheson, 2004). While these systems have their challenges, the company is very optimistic about their future, said Davis.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the use of renewable energy worldwide is expected to increase by 56 percent between 2001 and 2025, maintaining its 8 percent share of world commercial energy consumption throughout the forecast period. Because fossil fuel prices are expected to remain relatively low, renewables are not expected to be widely competitive, and their share of energy use will not increase. Much of the increase in renewable energy use is expected to be driven by new, large-scale hydroelectric projects, particularly in developing countries in Asia (DOE, 2003). Other factors relate to increased renewable production. Today, it is virtually impossible in the United States to put a new hydroelectric facility in place, said Davis, because companies do not want to displace people, wildlife, flora, or fauna to create hydroelectric facilities. On the contrary, an increasing number of hydroelectric facilities are being dismantled.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the use of renewable energy worldwide is expected to increase by 56 percent between 2001 and 2025, maintaining its 8 percent share of world commercial energy consumption throughout the forecast period.

—Erroll Davis

The challenge for Alliant Energy is to create energy at an affordable price, in a reliable manner, and with a minimal impact on the environment by applying fuel sources and technologies that are available today. There are no easy answers to that challenge, said Davis. Since 1999, however, Alliant Energy has reduced its sulfur dioxide emissions by 20 percent and its nitrogen oxide emissions by nearly 30 percent. While these improvements were being made, the company’s overall generation capacity increased significantly. The most important thing is for the company to continue searching for new technologies for the future, improve the existing technologies, use a diversified energy portfolio, and provide the appropriate market incentives to mitigate the damage to the environment. This approach will help balance energy needs, environmental concerns, and economic realities most effectively.

Each year, the company makes substantial investments in environmental technologies to comply with both state and federal regulations intended to protect the environment. For example, the company has installed electrostatic precipitators and other pollution abatement equipment at most of its facilities. Currently, Alliant Energy is studying the installation of scrubbers and select catalytic reduction units (SCRs). Similar to a catalytic converter in a car, SCRs remove emissions, but on a much larger scale.

Additionally, the company tries to go outside its industry to create new paradigms. The electric industry is run by electrical, civil, and mechanical engineers. When an emissions problem occurs, the first instinct is to build a mechanical device, put it on the end of the system, and assume that it solves the problem. However, such a solution often degrades the process and increases the price of the product. Alliant Energy tried to go outside the paradigm and look at solutions offered by the chemical industry, which solves problems from a process optimization perspective. For example, chemical engineers helped reduce the company’s emissions, particularly those of nitrogen oxides, by inventing a technology called “Smart Burn.” The technology uses combustion optimization science to increase boiler efficiency and has substantially reduced nitrogen oxide emissions with little capital investment. It is possible to reduce nitrogen oxide by 50 percent in coal-burning plants with little capital investment, said Davis. Another by-product of Smart Burn was that the boilers were operating more efficiently and cleanly, which reduced operations and maintenance expenses.

Alliant Energy has made great strides in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from its coal-fired plants through operational efficiencies. However, unlike other pollutants, such as mercury, sulfur dioxide, or oxides of nitrogens, which are byproducts of the process, there is a debate in the industry as to whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant or a process itself. Levels of carbon dioxide cannot be reduced beyond a certain point because burning generates carbon dioxide. If carbon dioxide cannot be eliminated, ideas for capturing and sequestering it need to be developed. Future carbon sequestration possibilities will be based on sound science; appropriate public policies that will include the trading of credits, other trading regimes, as well as other market mechanisms; and incentives to reduce emissions, asserted Davis.

Incentives for Improving Air Quality

According to the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, from 1970 to 2002 the U.S. population grew by 42 percent to 291 million, the number of registered vehicles increased by 111 percent to 235 million, the gross domestic product increased by 175 percent to $10.4 trillion, and energy consumption increased by 41 percent. However, according to EPA, over the same period, nitrogen oxide emissions declined by 17 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions were cut almost in half, lead emissions were reduced by 98 percent, and carbon monoxide emissions decreased by 41 percent. These numbers indicate that substantial and steady progress has been made.

Electric utilities, regulators, legislators, and customers must continue to show initiative to improve air quality in the future, said Davis. Through its initiatives, Alliant Energy works with its customers on cost-effective conservation measures. The company offers a performance contracting initiative to its customers in Iowa and financial incentives for its larger industrial customers to put energy-saving and energy efficiency devices in place. These incentives are paid for by using the savings from reductions in energy use.

Electric utilities, regulators, legislators, and customers must continue to show initiative to improve air quality in the future.

—Erroll Davis

The company believes that standards for a portfolio of renewable energy sources can provide certainty and create a more stable investment environment for the development of renewable energy. It also believes that the best way to ensure cleaner air is to take a multiemission approach. Attempts to mitigate one pollutant at a time are costly because the facilities need to be modified and then remodified to address another pollutant. Any standard that is put in place should be properly constructed and appropriately applied not only at the state level but at the national level as well. The best answers to the energy policy debate will most likely come from collaboration and debate among serious stakeholders, concluded Davis.


Linkage Between Sources of Energy Production and National Security Issues

National security, climate stability, and rural community health can be strengthened with a strong commitment to a new energy economy based on renewable energy and energy efficiency, said Michael Noble of Minnesotans for Energy-Efficient Economy.

National security problems in the United States are mounting, and they are closely linked with the country’s energy system. For example, U.S. nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorism because most of them were built in the 1970s, when less consideration was given to the possibility of an assault on U.S. soil. However, a much greater national security issue is U.S. dependency on foreign oil, said Noble. The security of the United States is deeply challenged by the U.S. commitment to access the world’s oil and the presence of U.S. troops in Mideast countries. Only 3 percent of the proven oil reserves in the world are under U.S. soils, including the North Slope of Alaska, whereas nearly 70 percent of the proven reserves are in the Middle East countries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Libya. The top 10 oil-producing states also include politically unstable countries such as Venezuela, Russia, and Nigeria, noted Noble. Most of the oil and gas energy resources are concentrated in such unstable parts of the world.

The United States is growing increasingly dependent on foreign oil. Approximately 55 percent of the country’s oil is imported today, but with the consumption trajectory climbing and domestic production gradually declining, the business-as-usual forecast is that the United States will receive 70 percent of its oil from foreign sources within 20 years. Today, U.S. oil businesses receive numerous tax breaks, subsidies, and public incentives to obtain as much domestic oil out of the ground as quickly as possible; therefore, it is likely that the United States will be in the unenviable position of depleting its own resources the most rapidly—a public policy that could be dubbed “Exhaust America First.”

The situation with world natural gas markets is similar. The Middle East and Russia each have about 10 times the proven oil reserves as Canada and the United States combined. In the near future, natural gas markets will be dominated by liquid natural gas (LNG), which will be shipped in tankers across the ocean like oil is today. A further security issue is that the gas will enter the United States through LNG ports on the West Coast and on the Eastern Seaboard. These LNG ports will again create a considerable debate about public security and national defense, because natural gas ports will be particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack, which may result in a massive explosion.

Hypothetically, electricity services and the coal industry could contribute to securing domestic energy, especially if coal electricity can be produced without new emissions of pollutants that contribute to global warming. With the help of urban transportation systems that are powered by electricity, such as trains, light rail, subways, streetcars, and other urban transport, the average vehicle miles traveled in the United States could be reduced from 10,000 to 5,000 vehicle miles per year. Additionally, plug-in electric hybrid vehicles have the potential to get the equivalent of 500 miles per gallon by primarily running on electricity from the electric grid, plus battery storage, if the vehicle is used primarily for short trips or commuting. This strategy could significantly reduce in the level of U.S. reliance on foreign oil, but it would put increasing pressure on the electricity-generating system and put upward pressure on the system’s push toward new coal-burning technologies. If most of the energy for U.S. cars came from electricity, long-distance travel could be fueled by biofuels, and ethanol, increasingly from cellulosic sources, could make a meaningful contribution to energy independence, unlike it does today.

Renewable Energy and Climate Change

The health problems that result from the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, can be significantly reduced with new technologies, but an important component of the energy use question is global climate change. Global warming is a difficult problem, and to stabilize the climate the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that U.S. emissions need to be reduced by approximately 70 percent. New energy sources that do not contribute to the global warming problem are thus needed. Global warming is the single most difficult technological engineering, economic, and policy question facing the world, with the possible exception of issues of world poverty and world development, said Noble.

It is accepted science that because of global warming significant disruptions and uncertainties in farming are expected, along with severe weather occurrences, such as extreme storms and heat waves. A heat wave in Europe in August 2003 killed 30,000 people when the temperature in Paris reached 117ºF. In 1995, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assigned a 95 percent probability to the possibility that the increasing storms in rural America were in part related to global warming, noted Noble.

Global warming will have international impacts as well. Rising seas will cause the loss of island nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, resulting in tens of thousands of climate refugees. When the sea level rises a meter or two, the people of The Netherlands will build better dikes, but the people in Bangladesh may no longer be able to live in that part of the world, said Noble. This situation is going to produce increasing tension between the have and have-not nations, resulting in the increasing international isolation of the United States at the time of the greatest need for cooperation among nations.

According to several studies summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it will cost between 1 percent and 4 percent of the world’s gross domestic product to stabilize the climate by reducing emissions 60 percent to 80 percent. If the gross domestic product expands 2 percent per year, on average, stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at 450 parts per million will cost 1 percent of the global gross domestic product over the next 50 years. In the words of the British foreign secretary, fixing global warming would mean 50 years of economic expansion in 50 years plus 6 months instead.

An influential study by Princeton researchers S. Pacala and R. Socolow published in 2004 summarized the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how required to achieve material reductions in emissions by 2054 (Pacala and Socolow, 2004). The authors identified 15 strategies that are technologically ready to go, with the finding that a dramatic expansion of any seven of these strategies, or “wedges,” could put the world on the trajectory to solving the climate problem. Potential “climate stabilization wedges” that would be of significant importance to rural economies include the substitution of wind power for coal-fired power plants, expansion of conservation tillage to all croplands, substitution of biofuels for fossil fuels, and the expansion of reforestation activities and tree plantations.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States could meet 20 percent of its total electric supply needs with renewable energy in the next 15 years at no net cost to consumers (DOE, 2001). This is largely based on the finding by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that wind energy prices are expected to continue to fall over time, with the costs at sites with lower wind speeds closing the gap with the very low costs at sites with high wind speeds (Figure 3-4).

FIGURE 3-4. Cost of wind energy from 1990 to 2020.


Cost of wind energy from 1990 to 2020. Wind power is expected to be the lowest-cost source of new power within the decade (kWh = kilowatt-hour). SOURCE: DOE (2002).

The Europeans have developed and sustained climate and economic development policies and are leading the way in wind power, which is a popular and environmentally sound choice. Denmark and many other European countries are starting to put their wind turbines out at sea at nearly twice the cost of land-based turbines; the Germans have invested the equivalent of over $15 billion in wind energy, with more than 40,000 workers in the industry to date. In Europe, government and industry officials work jointly on climate change policy and wind energy. Unfortunately, because of the uncertain on and off policy in the United States, wind energy production has lagged behind, despite vastly superior wind energy resources, especially in rural areas of the Great Plains states, said Noble. He urged the United States to develop a strong domestic demand for these technologies so that there would be the opportunity to export rather than import these technologies. Wind energy would provide jobs; rural economic development; infrastructure; and investments for schools, hospitals, and technology.

Community ownership and involvement in the financing of wind energy projects would be one way to approach wind energy ventures in the United States. However, community-based wind energy projects face policy barriers, said Noble. The support from utilities in the marketplace is uncertain, and there are problems with handling the transmission capacity or transmission rules. In addition, farmers and local entrepreneurs would face many technical problems that would be a challenge to overcome.

Noble suggested that partnerships of community-based wind energy system owners, large wind energy system developers, and transmission owners are needed to help realize the potential for the technology. Such coalitions could build large projects that would deliver bulk power to population centers and provide the political coalition needed to help pass renewable energy standards in many more states. Only 17 states in the United States have renewable energy standards. In addition to the on again–off again federal energy production tax credit, passage of state renewable energy standards is the key policy tool that drives renewable energy in the United States. Also, a broader coalition that would involve environmental groups, clean energy advocate groups, forward-looking businesses, economic development groups, the health care community, the science community, and doctors is needed. Such a coalition could help pass national standards and a national policy of mandatory market-based reductions in global warming emissions, concluded Noble.


The Nebraska Environmental Partnerships Program (NEP) was created in 1994 to provide environmental health assistance to small communities (those with populations greater than 1,000) that were thought to be out of compliance with state or federal health regulations. The program was created to manage the health concerns that have emerged as a result of complex environmental regulations, limited financial resources, an aging infrastructure, an aging population, and decreasing populations in rural communities. This program works with the towns as a nonregulatory program in a regulatory manner but using a community-based team process that assists local governments with assessing and solving local public health and environmental challenges, and the towns know and respect that, said Jackie Stumpff of NEP. The team is flexible and helps small communities work through environmental health problems by providing resources and technical assistance at the request and convenience of local leaders.

NEP partners daily with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). In Nebraska the Health and Human Services System, Department of Regulations and Licensure is the primary agency overseeing the state drinking water act, and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is the primary agency regulating wastewater. NEP also partners with the University of Nebraska’s Center for Applied Rural Innovation; Partnership for Rural Nebraska; Community and Regional Planning group; and the Public Policy Center.

Other partner organizations include regional nongovernmental organizations, such as the Midwest Assistance Program, which is a rural community assistance provider that covers the states of Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas; the Nebraska Rural Water Association, which has a contract with the Health and Human Services System, Department of Regulations and Licensure to work with the communities on water issues; and Natural Resources Districts (NRDs). Nebraska has 23 NRDs that simulate the watersheds throughout the state. NEP’s partnerships with federal agencies include EPA and the Rural Development section of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Nebraska Environmental Partnerships Program Activities

Nebraska has developed a number of programs and grants to improve environmental health in the state. Stumpff described some of those programs, which are also described below in greater detail.

Community Assessment Grants

The primary activity of NEP is the management of community assessment grants. These grants consist of a $3,000 award for independent engineering services. With the community assessment grant monies, communities can hire a consultant of their choice to have their water, wastewater, and solid waste infrastructures reviewed. The grant helps towns address possible infrastructure problems or determine the development projects that they might need and provides information for communities to discuss and prioritize problems. A total of $50,000 was allotted for this grant from the State Revolving Fund in fiscal years 2005 and 2006.

State Revolving Fund

The State Revolving Fund is divided into two sections: the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). CWSRF and DWSRF were created from a series of EPA capitalization grants. The needs of the two funds are determined by DEQ and the state’s Health and Human Services System after reviewing needs surveys submitted by communities each December. For fiscal year 2005, State Revolving Fund allocations for drinking water needs were $329 million, and the fund has $9.9 million available; allocations for clean water needs for the same fiscal year were $320.6 million, and the fund has $17.34 million available.

NEP, in conjunction with the State Revolving Fund, identifies many issues that have a direct impact on public health and that are in need of attention. It

  • identifies communities without sewer systems and works with as many of them as possible to get grants and assist them if they want to become served so that they will have healthy sewer systems;
  • assists communities in meeting water quality standards;
  • provides non-point-source pollution funding for projects associated with wellhead protection;
  • funds land acquisition and source water protection;
  • meets critical public health needs associated with a natural or manmade disaster that may or may not activate the State Emergency Operations Plan; and
  • works with systems with technical, financial, and managerial problems or concerns in the towns.

Water Wastewater Advisory Committee

The Water Wastewater Advisory Committee (WWAC) was created in 1997. WWAC consists of individuals from different agencies, including USDA’s Rural Development; the Nebraska Health and Human Services System, Department of Regulation and Licensure; the Nebraska Department of Economic Development; and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. The purpose of WWAC is to optimize the sources and uses of funding for water and sewer projects, provide the best funding package to a community, and work with communities as a team to assist them in building a project. WWAC meets once a month to find the best funding sources (a loan or a grant) for community water or wastewater projects.

Small Town Dynamics

Small town dynamics focus on individual responsibility. Government organizations are often constrained by their own organizational cultures or lack or resources. Effectively changing the way in which an organization operates or relates to small town Nebraska relies primarily on changes that individuals within the organization make in their work and profession. Small town dynamics charge government workers with thinking about their own behavior and attitude toward Nebraska’s smaller communities. Government workers are challenged to become agents of change within their departments to better address issues with officials from small communities. By using this bottom-up approach within the organization, it is anticipated that the relationships and approach of government workers to small town officials and communities will also change over time.

Partnership for Rural Nebraska

The Partnership for Rural Nebraska (PRN) is a cooperative commitment by the state of Nebraska, the University of Nebraska, the federal government, and other stakeholders to address the opportunities and challenges identified by rural Nebraskans. Other organizations and activities affiliated with PRN include Rural News Bits and the Nebraska Rural Poll. Rural News Bits is a newsletter published 10 times a year. Its objective is to provide timely information to people involved in Nebraska’s rural development efforts. Contributing organizations share ideas, educational and financial opportunities, announcements, and general news. More than 6,000 people working on rural development in Nebraska receive Rural News Bits.

The Nebraska Rural Poll is conducted through the University of Nebraska’s Center for Applied Rural Innovation. It conducts high-quality, comprehensive research and provides information on the trends in rural Nebraska. The attitudes of the people who live there are gathered and analyzed. This information provides an invaluable snapshot of rural Nebraska that can be considered in public policy. The Nebraska Rural Poll results have been cited in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today.

Other Activities

Other NEP activities include a few innovative projects that involve decommissioning of abandoned wells, in which approximately 268 wells or cisterns were closed to help improve the quality of the source water; wetlands construction and cattail growth; and nitrate removal. Partnering can sometimes be challenging, but it can be accomplished, concluded Stumpff.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Medicine, the Roundtable, or its sponsors. This chapter was prepared by staff from the transcript of the meeting. The discussions were edited and organized around major themes to provide a more readable summary and to eliminate duplication of topics.



The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Medicine, the Roundtable, or its sponsors. This chapter was prepared by staff from the transcript of the meeting. The discussions were edited and organized around major themes to provide a more readable summary and to eliminate duplication of topics.

Copyright © 2006, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK56969
PubReader format: click here to try


  • PubReader
  • Print View
  • Cite this Page
  • PDF version of this title (1.5M)

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...