Resource Economics

Sylvia Brandt Selected to Join CRF Family Research Scholars

Sylvia Brandt, associate professor of resource economics and public policy, is one of six faculty members chosen to be part of the 2015-16 CRF Family Research Scholars Program. "I am deeply honored to be working with CRF and this stellar group of scholars," says Brandt.

Social Science Matters: Julie Caswell

Julie Caswell, professor of resource economics, teaches courses focused on the economic organization of food systems and the economics of food safety and nutrition internationally. Her current research is on the economics of food certification. 

I have been on 5 National Academy committees studying dioxins in the food supply, the benefits and risks of seafood consumption, risk based food safety systems, release of data on food safety in meat plants, and SNAP (food stamps).

How does your research translate into practical, real life applications?

My 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. For example, I am currently researching how the new Food Safety Modernization Act will impact competition between quality certifiers in the fresh produce markets.

How did you get to where you are in your career?

I became an applied economist as an undergraduate. My first class was on the World Food Problem - a mix of economics and policy — and I was hooked. I majored in Public Affairs Management and went to grad school at Wisconsin to study the Industrial Organization of the Food System. After grad school, the Resource Economics Department at UMass Amherst was a perfect fit for me because it had a focus on the after farm gate food system. I began doing research on economic incentives for companies to produce safe and nutritious foods. I’ve worked on food safety regulations, international trade in food products, organic certification, and GMO labeling, for example.

The field of the economics of food safety and nutrition was new when I started at UMass. With colleagues across the U.S., we published several of the first books in this area, which is now internationally established.

I have been on 5 National Academy committees studying dioxins in the food supply, the benefits and risks of seafood consumption, risk based food safety systems, release of data on food safety in meat plants, and SNAP (food stamps).

What would you consider as your major contributions to your field and to the university?

My major contribution is helping to understand what determines quality for food products and how that quality is signaled to consumers. My key focus is on why some quality attributes are regulated and some are not, depending on the types of risk they pose and how much information on those risks is available without regulation in the market.

I also made a significant contribution to my field by chairing NE-165, an international consortium of researchers focused on the economics of the food system. I was the chair for 15 years.

To the university, I’ve served on countless committees. I was the Chair of the Resource Economics Department for six years (2006-2012). And I will add that teaching undergraduate and graduate students and working on policy related research is the most rewarding part of my career.

Why should students study Resource Economics?

Resource Economics will give you microeconomic tools to understand how markets work and quantitative decision-tools—the combination is really powerful in today’s economy for studying environmental and resource, agricultural and food, consumer and family, energy, and managerial economics issues. Should we expand markets for CO2? Why or why not? Are local foods more sustainable, safe, and nutritious? How are families coming out of the recent great recession? How can my company use analytics and big data to be more successful? All these are areas you can address with our tools.

Story and video by Taylor Gilmore ’15 (communication/journalism)

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