Banking on Food Security

The best way to secure our global food supply? Provide the economic incentive for innovation 

By Eve Daniels

Growing up, Jason Beddow dreamed of a future career that appears on most kids’ top 10 lists, right after astronaut and rock star. He wanted to be a veterinarian.

Beddow eventually followed his dream and enrolled in the pre-veterinary program at Texas Tech. He focused his undergraduate studies on agricultural science, and was “forced” to take economics as part of the curriculum. Turns out, he loved it.  “I learned that in order to understand why technologies and policies succeed or fail, we have to get the science right, but we also have to get the economics right.”

One decade and three academic degrees later, Beddow has found a perfect niche at the University of Minnesota. Today, he’s an assistant professor of international agriculture, a MnDRIVE fellow, and an applied economist who’s working to find cost-effective solutions to global food challenges.

Not quite what he pictured back in grade school (“I don’t think there’s ever been a child who said they wanted to be an agricultural economist,” he laughs), but an exciting career nonetheless.  Through his global collaborations with InSTePP, the HarvestChoice Project and other initiatives, Beddow not only analyzes data at a desk — he also gets his boots dirty.

 Jason Beddow in Brazil“We make sure to go out and talk to farmers and develop insights that you can’t get behind a computer screen,” says Beddow, who travels from the agribusiness hubs of Minnesota to the maize fields of sub-Saharan Africa to gather data on crop yields, climate patterns, and the most critical areas for investment.

 “We see dismal numbers all the time, like that there are more than 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night. That’s a really sad number, but it’s especially sad when you look someone in the eye who’s potentially facing that problem.”

Slow and steady wins

When it comes to solving these problems for good, the more R&D, the better. “That’s been the case throughout the history of modern agriculture,” says Beddow. “The Green Revolution came about because of research and developing new varieties that deal with different environments and result in higher yields.”

And, while agricultural research can be a very slow process, the returns on investment are vital to our food security.

Take Ug99, for example, a race of wheat stem rust that was discovered in Uganda in 1999. Often referred to as the “ancient enemy,” stem rust has been around for many years, and University of Minnesota plant pathologists (including Norman Borlaug) have had success in fighting against it. But much of the world is now susceptible to this new strain of the pathogen.

In 2013, Beddow and his colleagues published a paper in Science that conveyed how Ug99 works, how it might spread, the potential agricultural and economic impacts, and how concerned we should be. “We found that we basically need to double the amount of research that’s put into this disease.”

By and large, the opportunity to support more research isn’t as attractive to investors as concrete solutions. But that’s where economics comes into play, says Beddow. “When we get the numbers right on these investments, it fosters an environment in which research can be sponsored and done successfully.”

The best investment yet

When he’s not crunching numbers or digging in the dirt, Beddow is busy teaching others about the wide world of agricultural economics. His favorite course right now is part of a collaborative master’s program between the University of Minnesota and seven universities in Africa.

Beddow and co-instructor Philip Pardey lead the class from a room full of students on the St. Paul campus, while connecting via live teleconference with students from across Africa. The participants discuss the economics of science and technology in their respective regions, while expanding their global perspectives and networks.

“Our students quickly learn that it can be hard to do research across continents, time zones and languages, but they also find out that the rewards are high,” says Beddow, who believes distance learning is one of the best economic investments we can make.

“We’re not only reaching out to our own students but also others thousands of miles away. It’s a great model for increasing human capital and investing in people.”

Money talks

Yet, even when investments in research and education lead to better farming technologies and methods, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world will use them.

 “You can say, ‘it would be great if people changed their diets, or if farmers produced different foods in different ways,’ but unless there are incentives to do that, all we’re talking about is shoulds and coulds,” says Beddow.

To that end, Beddow tries to avoid telling people what they should do, and instead focuses on what they’ll want to do. “We start out assuming farmers are smart, that they do everything for a reason, and we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what those reasons are.”

For example, from an outsider’s point of view, it made no sense that certain farmers in East Africa were opting not to use more fertilizer on their crops, especially when doing so would have greatly increased their yields. But after talking to those farmers and analyzing their market structure, Beddow learned that they were being completely rational.

“They weren’t using the fertilizer because it simply cost too much, so they were doing what we would do if we were put in the exact same situation,” he says. “Farming is a business. If we want people to adopt something, it has to make economic sense.”

Related links

MnDRIVE (Minnesota's Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy)  http://mndrive.umn.edu/

InSTePP http://www.instepp.umn.edu/about-us/people/jason-beddow

HarvestChoice http://harvestchoice.org/individual/jason-beddow

Collaborative Masters of Agricultural and Applied Economics http://www.aercafrica.org/index.php/collaborative-masters-in-agricultural-and-applied-economics-overview

 

"We make sure to go out and talk to farmers and develop insights that you can’t get behind a computer screen."