New students at the Friedman School have just arrived, and students everywhere are thinking hard about a lot of things. I often get emails from like the one below but they almost never ask so many great questions at once. After replying, I realized that this exchange would make a good blog post. It’s posted here with Abigail Auner’s kind permission and lightly edited for readability: a good intro to a great year of research and discovery ahead.
From: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 8:33 AM
To: Masters, William A. <William.Masters@tufts.edu>
Subject: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)
Good morning, Dr. Masters,
I am Abigail Auner, Joe’s niece. He told me that you study many of the same topics that I am learning about in school and want to learn more about, so if I may, I would like to ask you a few questions. First off, I study plant sciences at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in greenhouse management, and I am minoring in sustainable agriculture. My career interests include vegetable production and integrated pest management, but I am also trying to learn more about the economics of food, as that is often the weakest link in discussions of sustainability.
The main thing I want to ask is how do you see the future of agriculture? What, in your estimation, are some of the solutions that society must adopt to feed itself without bankrupting itself?
There are certainly countless attempts in progress to solve the food security problem. Lately I have read a bit about indoor agriculture powered by LEDs. This technology has become much more affordable in recent years, and one of the purported benefits is that, since the systems are not weather- or light-dependent, they can be used anywhere in the world. Some companies are creating modular “farm” units in shipping containers, and in Japan there are indoor farms in abandoned subway tunnels. I think this idea holds promise, but I have not seen any numbers on the cost and energy requirements, and these seem like limiting factors, along with training people to use the technology and adapting the systems to regional staples. What do you think of these developments?
Another facet of food in which I am intrigued is entomophagy. I studied abroad in Thailand over an intersession a couple of years ago, and there I had the opportunity to eat roasted crickets. They were surprisingly like potato chips, only with more crunch and protein. And recently there have been several new companies starting to purvey either food-grade insect products (like flour, protein bars, or corn chips) or insect-rearing kits for home production. Do you think that insect production has a viable future in the United States?
Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?
I appreciate your time.
B.S., Greenhouse Production – Expected May 2016
President, University of Missouri Horticulture Club
Greenhouse Assistant, University of Missouri
From: Masters, William A.
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 11:35 AM
To: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Subject: RE: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)
Hello Abigail, nice to see this from you. All great questions. Way too deep for email… more like phd dissertation topics, but here goes:
— future of agriculture
Much like the past, only more so: that is, agriculture’s share of human activity has shrunk to occupy about half of world’s total workforce, and that share will keep declining as economies develop. For those who remain farmers and others involved in agriculture to meet the needs of all those non-farmers, within planetary boundaries, we will need lots of innovations tailored to ever-changing local conditions. Much of that innovation will be about producing more with less, but higher-income consumers also demand a lot of things other than food from our farmers especially animal welfare and the maintenance of traditional methods, as well as basics of water quality and other ecosystem services. So agriculture as a whole is a big and diverse thing that meets a lot of human needs, in different ways, and there is room for many seemingly contradictory things at once.
— urban farming, LEDs and hydroponics etc.
One key need being met by modern agriculture is a sense of control, as people seek more closed-loop systems, and momentum from novelty and innovation. Hence urban farming, driving photosynthesis with artificial lights and deliberate dosing of plant nutrients. Another deep human need is a sense of connectedness to nature, hence organically farmed community and school gardens etc., as well as suburban farm-stands and pick-your-own operations. But as you might guess, these are all pretty expensive ways of producing food as such, and in places where niche agriculture is cost-effective it often exploits an unusual local opportunity such as using waste disposal to heat greenhouses. So if one is actually talking about food security for the US or the world as such, almost all peoples’ dietary needs are now and will continue to be met from the vast expanse of natural soil, bathed in sunlight and rainfall and irrigation, with increases in output per acre and per worker coming from innovations such as precision farming and satellite/drone imagery etc. as well as crop genetics, veterinary techniques, disease control etc. that help us grow more on the fixed stock of natural land and water. That’s not to say that high-tech urban farming with LEDs, alongside organic farms and gardens, are not really important parts of the food system. It’s just that they should be understood as part of agriculture that gives it richness and diversity, not the main source of sustenance. They are the appetizer or dessert rather than the main course. I am glad we have them and they fill real needs but I don’t eat them every day.
Very fun. Humanity is still young and it is very important to keep trying new foods, which are often old but neglected ones like crickets and also plants such as amaranth, as well as new food processing tricks like turning peas into egg-like substances. Regarding insects in particular, it is conceivable that crickets or other species will take off. The last huge breakthrough in the mix of species that we use for food happened in the mid-late 20th c. with hybrid corn and then soybeans and canola providing the vegetable oils and animal feeds that had earlier been super scarce and are now much cheaper… Changes in the mix of species tend to happen gradually, e.g. the rise of chicken relative to beef that is going on now, partly as a slow response to the corn-soy-vegetable fats revolution. And because agriculture is such a geographically patchy, diverse thing, even a niche enterprise can survive and become a pretty big business. So there will be plenty of interest in new sources of protein and higher-quality fats. I don’t think that I personally would invest my own time and money in an insect farm, since there is so much room for expansion of fish from aquaculture to meet similar needs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if insect-based dishes show up on more and more restaurant menus. There are plenty of obstacles to both raising and processing them — which is part of the point whenever one is pursuing something challenging.
Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?
Terrible. Really tragic. And it looks like things will get worse before they get better:
Now back to work for me, but these are really interesting questions so merit much thought than email allows. Please stay in touch, maybe especially if you’re considering going deeper into all of this with grad school!
All the best,
William A. Masters
Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
and Department of Economics (by courtesy)
Tufts University, 150 Harrison Avenue, Boston MA 02111
Office: Jaharis Building room 140, phone +1.617.636.3751, fax +1.617.636.3781
Mobile: +1.617.575.9050 (forwards to cell/home and converts voicemail to email)
A fun feature of NUTR 238 is our annual econ-of-food potluck dinner, to celebrate the privileges of modern food culture. So many choices! The idea is to show off our amazing dietary optimization skills, with prizes for the best dish in each of several categories.
We start with the oldest challenge in the economics of nutrition, with the dish that best contributes to a least-cost diet. We also have a prize for meeting nutrient requirements with the least environmental impact, and another for meeting your RDAs with the most cultural significance. And, lest we forget life’s most implacable constraint, a prize for doing so with the least preparation time. We had serious economists judging the contest, Sean Cash and Anna McAlister, but very unserious prizes: what my wife Diane calls the universal food.
Here are the winners: From left, Anna (judge), Krista Zillmer (for a spectacular Spaghetti Squash Chow Mein) , Quinault Childs (for delicious cricket-flour cookies), Sean and me (with prizes), Aaron Shier (bowing to Milky Way Day) and Kristen Caiafa (for a bag of what is really, truly the global standard in least-cost nutrition).
Of course we also had many other wonderful dishes, from Iyamide’s Sierra Leonean stew to Ashley’s classic carrot cake. As you can see from the detritus on the table, we ate it all.
Happy spring break, everyone!
PS: NUTR 238 alumni can check out past potluck photos here.
It’s January 2nd, time to get ready for the year’s firehose of food-related news and data.
Our daily challenge is to make sense of events, without retreating into a comfy filter bubble. Economics can help with that. For students registered in NUTR 238 our course website is now up. Class will start on January 15th, and eventually get into news analysis exercises to diagram the economic principles behind current events, and data analysis exercises to visualize comparisons over time and across countries. Before then, or if you’re just browsing, here are some shout-outs to some numbery news sources for the year ahead:
— My vote for best newspaper innovation of 2014 goes to the New York Times’ Upshot, whose launch was itself newsworthy. Among their great food stories last year were the Fried Calamari Index, and What 2000 Calories Looks Like.
— One media surprise was the rise and rise of podcast journalism. Not just Serial, but also the great Planet Money and NPR econo-news , with fun food stories like Why is Milk in the Back of the Store, and When Do Chefs Buy Generic Foods?
— The dataverse just gets denser and denser, with better and better data visualization. My vote for best quick advice is these great posts about how to clear off the table and remove to improve. In class we’ll see a ton of numbers, try hard to avoid numbo-jumbo,and do our best to be use data thoughtfully like this great chart on how gluten diverged from celiac.
The food world is full of surprises – so keep an eye on food-related news with sites like the food, nutrition and agriculture sources to your right, and if you’re enrolled in NUTR 238, use this blog to share what you find.
Happy new year!
Amazing photos. Who knew that breakfasts could be so colorful and varied? And seeing all these examples side by side reveals a lot about food choice.
Clearly, price and income does matter, but so does tradition and the personality of each individual child and their family.
One big influence on food choice that’s nicely illustrated by these examples is the difference between weekend and weekday breakfasts. The weekday breakfasts are really rushed, more like least-time meals than least-cost.
It turns out that meals are so much better when we have more time to prepare and eat them. Once people reach a high enough level of income to afford the nutrients we need, time allocation becomes as important as cash expenditure — and that tradeoff is especially visible at breakfast.
A lot of economists these days are very interested in how nutrition is influenced by our time use, with research on issues such as how mothers’ employment influences childhood obesity in the US, contributing to a global trend towards time-scarcity.
One of the biggest challenges in food policy is how to make food that not only nutritious, but also quick and convenient. Any ideas?
On the T this week, just before the start of new school year studying food choices, I just loved seeing these two ads next to each other:
|From Drop Box|
Our food system offers many wonderful contrasts like this: sometimes we can spend a leisurely Sunday exploring fresh, traditional and local food — but sometimes we want a jolt of fast, new caffeinated drinks from far away. My own fridge is full of such contradictions. Care to guess what opposites might lurk in there?
NYT article here.
What do you think the reaction will be, for both consumers, and for producers who currently use trans fats in their products? What do you think of the proposed ban?
Hello everyone! I researched the topic of colony collapse disorder on honey bee colonies in the United States for my midterm project. While this topic has been around for several years, the importation of foreign bees has begun more recently. This importation has altered the economic impact of declining populations of honey bees in America. You can watch my video presentation here:
I hope you enjoy learning about this topic!
There were three economists who shared the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences this year, and one of them was Robert Shiller, a professor at Yale. He is interviewed by the Washington Post here.
Their topic area is financial markets, so it’s not explicitly food related…but in the interview, Professor Shiller discusses his views on rationality…an important assumption underpinning many economic models, including the ones we use in class. He says, “When I look around, I see a great deal of foolishness, and I can’t believe it’s not important economically.” He’s also skeptical of the idea that everyone will properly manage their retirement savings…people are mired in habit and inertia and you’d need to allocate lots of time and energy to making financial decisions.
These ideas can be related to food economics too…quite clearly on the consumption side, and also on the production side. People do irrational things all the time when it comes to the foods they buy and eat. Habits and psychology are significant drivers of food and health decisions, as any RD or MD can tell you. So…what do you think? Are people rational when it comes to food decisions? Are people each “rational” in their own way, making it hard for economists to model their decisions? Or, are people just not rational at all, and driven mostly by urges and habits when it comes to food? Does it depend on the person? How might the answer affect food policy?
I also appreciate Prof. Shiller’s general skepticism and love of facts.
We’ll get more into this topic area when we talk about market failures later.
Last Friday I was watching CNN and the government shut down was a hot topic (and still is). What stood out the most were reports about how a prolonged government shutdown might affect grocery prices, particularly the price of milk. The news claimed that milk prices could double! I didn’t know if this was actually possible, a gallon of organic milk is about $4.50. Would people actually pay $9.00 for milk? It made me wonder how a rise in price might affect the choices consumers would make at the grocery store. Would people opt for milk alternatives like coconut, soy, or almond milk? Would people choose to consume more of other beverages instead? How would this affect the price of cereal?
Today my family in Puerto Rico told me that in the past few days the price of milk has risen to $8 a gallon. I wouldn’t consider milk to be a staple of the Puerto Rican diet, but a lot of popular baked goods are made with milk. So I’m curious about how a rise in milk prices will affect the price of other popular foods. But my question to the class is, how would a rise in milk prices affect your consumer choices?
One good opportunity to improve public health is in grocery stores, as psychologists and economists work together to help retailers increase sales of, well… groceries.
Today’s New York Times has a terrific news story about this frontier of research by their reporter Michael Moss. Moss just released a lively new book about how food manufacturers raise the levels of salt, sugar, fat and other ingredients in processed foods far beyond what you’d add in your own kitchen, while research at Tufts and elsewhere has shown similar problems in restaurant food. In contrast, grocery stores sell a lot of fruits, vegetables and other relatively healthy stuff, generally around the perimeter of the store. So, in the choice between processed foods, restaurant foods, and plain old groceries, what determines how consumers’ spend their hard-earned money?
Advertising. Taste and convenience are also important, as is factual information about nutrition and health. But those things are often hard to change, in which case advertising can provide the swing vote that nudges consumers towards what they actually buy. The effectiveness of advertising helps explain why we see so much of it.
The research featured in today’s NYT is about a great new display ad being tested in grocery store shopping carts: a mirror, reflecting the shopper’s face back at them. The researchers’ hypothesis is that commercial ads distract people from their own desires, so that a mirror reminding consumers of who they really are would nudge them back towards choices they are less likely to regret later when they leave the store.
What do you think? Where might a mirror help you make more optimal choices?
And to continue thinking like an economist, consider the problem from the store’s point of view: in your experience, when do they try to sell you things you might later regret, as opposed to helping you find things that actually fit the long-term you?
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