A new $1-million research chair in an emerging field at the University of Guelph is intended to make agri-food production more efficient and ensure sustainable food production in Canada and around the world.
The inaugural Arrell Family Chair in Behavioural and Experimental Economics will support students and seed projects and enable the hiring of a lab manager for a growing research lab in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (FARE) within the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC).
Applying behavioural and experimental economics to the agri-food sector, the chair will be appointed as an Arrell Food Institute (AFI) chair on campus. The institute, established in 2016 at U of G with a $20-million donation from the Arrell Family Foundation, works to improve global food systems to sustainably feed a growing world population.
The new chair will be held for five years by FARE professor Dr. Tongzhe Li, whose field and lab research aims to combine economic theory with sometimes messy and unpredictable human behaviour.
“I want to couple human behaviour with natural sciences,” said Li.
Tony and Anne Arrell, both U of G grads, established The Arrell Family Foundation in 1999.
OAC dean Dr. Rene Van Acker said, “We are so grateful for the Foundation’s commitment to funding this chair and to recognizing the groundbreaking and unique work that Professor Li is doing to discover ways of facilitating the adoption of sustainability practices on farms in Canada and around the world.”
He added, “This chair represents leadership in OAC’s efforts to achieve sustainable food production.”
AFI chair Dr. Evan Fraser said, “The expertise and in-depth knowledge in economics and producer and consumer behaviour that Li brings will complement Arrell Food Institute’s projects immensely. The insights, connections and research from this area are incredibly important to creating more resilient and sustainable food systems for the future.”
“The Arrell Family Foundation is excited to support Li’s innovative research, which strives to better understand and unpack the black box of economic decision-making, particularly pertaining to activities in the agri-food-environmental domain,” said Laura Arrell. “It is fantastic to have another strong Arrell Food Institute Chair working collaboratively with Evan Fraser and the AFI team to make our food system more secure and sustainable.”
Bringing together economics and human behaviour
Through projects ranging from farmer incentive programs to agri-food employee retention to vertical farming, Li aims to marry economics with the people side of consumer and producer behaviour. She said her work helps improve decision making by governments, non-governmental organizations and producer groups.
“I envision the FARE Lab being a leading research team in Canada and internationally in using experimental economics techniques to inform evidence-based policy making and to provide actionable solutions for practitioners,” said Li.
She said more efficient economic choices can help save money for consumers and producers and mitigate environmental impacts of food production.
Her work involves connecting directly with producer groups at local, provincial, national and international levels.
In fall 2022, members of her lab ran an experimental auction along with the Ontario Soil Network at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show to learn what outreach methods work best for sharing information with farmers about various cover crops. They found that not all experts are trusted equally – a key result for groups looking to communicate with producers on food and environmental issues.
“As an experimental economist, you never make claims without real-world evidence gained from rigorous research,” said Li.
Also key, she said, is updating conventional supply-and-demand economic theory to include actual, contemporary decision-making in the equations.
Efficient resource allocation – with a human touch
For governments and other groups looking to efficiently allocate resources, Li said, “you can’t assume everyone is unboundedly rational. We rarely make decisions in the cold and objective world of mathematical utility and maximization. We’re influenced by our environment, society, learning and experience.”
In another experiment, Li worked with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario to study the effects of subsidies on grain farmers’ decisions about diversified cover rotation that can help improve soil fertility and prevent erosion. Funded by the Weston Family Foundation, that project underlined the connections between food production issues and sustainability, she said.
Her lab is supported by various agencies and groups, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Genome Canada, and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, a collaboration between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph
Li has also attracted funding from American organizations including the United States Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.
She collaborates with major American and European research networks in experimental economics. Besides drawing more students to U of G, she said, “This chair position will attract researchers, policy makers and practitioners into a comparable research network in Canada.”
Li completed a PhD at Washington State University and joined U of G in 2019. Referring to FARE, she said, “This is a dream department to work with in agri-food economics.”
Dr. Tongzhe Li