Resource Economist is Pioneer in Economics of Food Safety

Julie Caswell on Capitol Hill
Thursday, August 1, 2013

Professor Julie Caswell (resource economics) has taken over the presidency of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA). Among her first undertakings, as part of AAEA’s participation in activities to encourage funding of research in agricultural, resources and food areas, she visited Capitol Hill on August 1 to give a lunch seminar on the House side as part of a series by the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research and a briefing on the Senate side.

“I spoke about my research on the economics of risk based food safety systems and how it’s been funded,” Caswell says. “AAEA’s D.C.-based partner, the Council on Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics (C-FARE), also set up meetings for me with staff members of the Massachusetts delegation.”

Caswell is a member of C-FARE's Blue Ribbon Expert Panels on Consumer Concerns about Food, Health and Safety. The panel provides short- and long-run insights about food safety, quality, and health to policy makers, stakeholders, media, and food, agricultural and resource economists. To contact her panel, please submit your media/congressional staff questions or comments here.

Caswell has come a long way since identifying herself as an applied economist after taking that first course on the World Food Problem as an undergraduate at Michigan State. “The class was a mix of economics and policy and I was hooked,” she says. “I majored in public affairs management and went on to grad school at Wisconsin to study the industrial organization of the food system.”

With her PhD in agricultural economics and economics, Caswell arrived at UMass in 1984 with her husband Richard Rogers, also an agricultural and applied economist (now emeritus). “UMass was the perfect fit for us because it had a focus on the after-farm-gate food system,” she says. “Here I began doing research on economic incentives for companies to produce safe and nutritious foods.” She has also worked on food safety regulations, international trade in food products, organic certification, and nutrition and GMO labeling.

“The field of the economics of food safety was new when I started at UMass,” Caswell notes. “With colleagues around the country, we published several of the first books in this area, which is now internationally established.”

Caswell’s research applies directly to the choice of regulatory or non-regulatory options for assuring the quality and fair representation of food products in our markets. “I am currently researching how the new Food Safety Modernization Act will impact competition between quality certifiers in the fresh produce markets.”

A look through Caswell’s CV is pretty breathtaking. She is the recipient of an Outstanding Teaching Award, the university’s Award for Outstanding Achievements in Research and Creative Activity, the Chancellor’s Medal  (the highest honor on campus), and a Fulbright Fellowship, among other recognitions. She has been active in the National Academies on standing and study committees, in AAEA on all levels, and in the Northeastern Agricultural and Resource Economics Association as president and many other roles.

Serving as chair of Resource Economics from 2006-12, Caswell has published scores of journal articles, edited many books and journals, written book chapters, outreach publications and book reviews, produced reports, presented papers at associations and conferences nationally and internationally, and appeared often in the media. (Take a look at a May HuffPostLive interview about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and use of SNAP at farmers’ markets.) The many research grants she has received total many millions of dollars.

All of these accomplishments make Caswell a sought-after expert on “offering understanding of what determines quality for food products and how that quality is signaled to consumers. The key focus is why some quality attributes are regulated and some are not, depending on the types of risks they pose and how much information on those risks is available without regulation in the market.” She also points to being chair for thirteen years of NE-165, an international consortium of researchers focused on the economics of the food system.

“My most rewarding work,” Caswell says, “is teaching undergraduate and grad students and working on policy related research. I have been on several National Academies  committees studying dioxins in the food supply, the benefits and risks of seafood consumption, risk-based food safety systems, and SNAP.”

Caswell teaches courses focused on the economic organization of food systems, ResEc 121 Hunger in a Global Economy and the one-credit Life is Full of Choices Integrated Experience Seminar. She also teaches graduate courses on the economics of food safety and nutrition internationally. As undergraduate program director for Resource Economics, Caswell mentors several students in internships at any point in time. Several graduate students are doing research with her as well.

Those who wonder what the Resource Economics major can offer will be interested in Caswell’s response. “ResEc will give you microeconomic tools to understand how markets work and quantitative decision tools. This combination is really powerful in today’s economy for studying many issues: environmental and resource (Should we expand markets for CO2? Why or why not?); agriculture and food (Are local foods more sustainable, safe and nutritious?); consumer and family (How are families coming out of the great recession?); energy (What incentives work to encourage sustainable energy use?), and managerial economics (How can my company use analytics and big data to be more successful?). All these are areas you can address with our tools.”