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New UD research center -- ag policy meets economics

A new research center opened up at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Monday. At the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics, scientists and economists will conduct studies on how consumers value ecosystem services.

Funded by a $750,000 federal grant, the center will serve as USDA’s headquarters for a research consortium called C-BEAR, which stands for the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Policy Research.

They’re focused on using behavioral economics to better understand and execute agri-environmental policy. The new center’s director Kent Messer says that means asking consumers what the dollar value they’d place on ecosystem services provided by, for example, natural flood barriers, pristine beaches or locally harvested oysters. The data is then used to communicate directly with farmers to improve facilitation of agricultural programs.

“We’re not trying to go in and put in new regulations. We’re more saying that here are the existing regulations and here are the existing programs, how do we make them better for you? And there’s less conflict in the way we’re approaching it because we see it as a partnership,” said Messer.

Five of Messer’s students presented their individual research projects at the center’s opening.

Jacob Fooks, a post-doc at UD, wanted to know how wind turbines along the shore might affect beach tourism. To find out at what distance wind farms might turn a beautiful oceanside scenery into an eyesore, Fooks flagged tourists down in Delaware’s beaches, had them look at a display of a beach and virtually placed the turbines closer and closer to the shore until the tourist voiced repulsion.

“People are very accepting of wind turbines up until, at least, relatively close to them, much closer than many of the proposed projects have cited," said Fooks.

Messer says collecting this type of data about our environmental values can help farmers cut through the red tape that’s usually involved in carrying out projects that could improve the environment.

“Maybe it’s just reducing the time for them to complete the forms. Maybe we can work with them to do the things they’d love to do, but don’t want all the government regulations, paperwork and so forth to get them done.”

C-BEAR is a widespread collaboration involving the University of Chicago, Georgia State, Cornell, Tufts, among many other academic institutions.