Inaugural chair named to U of G's Arrell Food Institute to research link between human behaviour and economics

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The University of Guelph’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (FARE) within the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) has announced a $1-million research chair.

The 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.

The new chair will be held for five years by FARE professor Dr. Tongzhe Li, whose field and lab research aims to couple economic theory with human behaviour.

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 the University of Guelph with a $20-million donation from the Arrell Family Foundation, works to improve global food systems to sustainably feed a growing world population. Tony and Anne Arrell, both U of G grads, established The Arrell Family Foundation in 1999.

OAC dean Dr. Rene Van Acker says, “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. This chair represents leadership in OAC’s efforts to achieve sustainable food production.”

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,” says Li.

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,” says Li.

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