Marc Bellemare's blog brings economic issues into the mainstream
What do the price of quinoa, tips for giving presentations, the induced innovation hypothesis and the authenticity of poutine all have in common?
They're all the subjects of recent blog posts by Department of Applied Economics assistant professor Marc Bellemare, who blogs regularly about economics and many other things along with teaching, conducting research and editing professional journals. Starting in July, he will lead the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy in CFANS.
The quinoa post, titled "Quinoa nonsense, or why the world still needs agricultural economists," was written in 2013 in response to contradictory news stories about how the popularity of quinoa was either hurting or helping Andean farmers.
"There were a lot of things being said, some of them likely wrong," he says. "My response was passionate, that this a failure of journalism. It got retweeted and went viral, and a few months later a person from the International Trade Center in Geneva called and said 'we saw the post, and we're interested in those questions too.' " The blog post had planted the seed for a new research project.
The project involves collecting quarterly data on agricultural households in the Puno and Cusco regions of Peru, the primary areas where quinoa is grown. That will help the trade organization determine whether rising prices are truly hurting or helping the farmers.
"It's funny how that happens," Bellemare says. "Academics see blogging as a waste of time, but it's useful if you're blogging in the spirit of outreach. It's writing; you're contributing to the food policy debate in a format that's much faster than traditional academic writing. And it allows getting feedback—are people really interested in this?—because it's so easy to convince yourself that what you're working on is the most important thing in the world."
The native of Montreal found his path to development economics and food policy in graduate school at Cornell University, where his adviser had research projects in Madagascar looking at how different land tenancy arrangements affected the economic welfare of local residents.
"Most people start out with an interest in development and that brings them to economics," he says. "I started as an economist whose interest happens to be in development." In six years as an assistant professor at Duke University, his focus shifted toward food policy, and many of his blog posts and mass media appearances continue to revolve around that topic – with occasional forays into other topics like lion hunting in Tanzania, or female genital mutilation in West Africa.
On every topic, he writes clearly and forcefully. "There's value in saying these things and in working on these complicated issues," he says. "It gets you out of the echo chamber and helps clarify your thinking and writing."