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Virginia Tech professors look at food and nutrition choices through the lens of economics

July 15, 2016

A headshot of a woman and a man.
Elena Serrano (left) and George Davis (right) recently published a book examining consumer and producer behavior through the lens of economics.

The study of economics is much more than supply and demand for two faculty members from Virginia Tech who examine how consumer and producer behavior relate to food and nutrition.

George Davis, professor of agricultural and applied economics, and Elena Serrano, professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise, are co-authors of a recently published book entitled, “Food and Nutrition Economics: Fundamentals for Health Sciences.” Serrano, a Fralin Life Science Institute-affiliated faculty member, is also the director of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Family Nutrition Program.

In a first-of-its-kind book, the two from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences bring together the fields of economics and nutrition to shed light on food and nutrition issues and problems. These principles help provide insight into evaluating the effectiveness of different food and nutrition programs, including contemporary issues, such as soda taxes; income assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly referred to as food stamps; and the concept of “Big Food.”

“Economics is the study of how people and organizations make choices based on constraints. Consequently, most food and nutrition choices and outcomes — for consumers and producers of food — are the result of an economic decision,” said Davis. “Even a casual reading of popular press or scholarly articles reveals that economic arguments permeate themes about food, nutrition, and health but are often sidelined in discussions. As a result, many debates become about values. Economics helps provide a less polarizing lens to view different societal issues around food.”

The basic question Davis and Serrano bring to the fore is: “How do factors influencing our food choices operate through economic channels?”

The book, intended for undergraduate and graduate students as well as health professionals, leads readers on a plain-spoken journey of Economics 101. Davis said the benefit of the book is that people who may not have any previous experience studying economics but whose work is greatly affected by the ability to evaluate the role of economic principles can access the fundamentals of the forces that drive most food decisions.

“Without an understanding of basic economic principles and mechanisms, it is difficult to analyze or understand the effectiveness of food and nutrition policies or interventions that are designed to operate through the channels of economics,” Davis said.

Davis and Serrano don’t shy away from lively and contemporary polemics that have often polarized the modern food movement. They ground their economics lessons in case studies.

“A key component of knowing the impact of nutrition and health interventions and policies is how interventions and policies will affect profitability — revenues and costs — because businesses respond to profitability signals,“ said Davis.

No matter where readers may stand on issues about the modern food system, understanding economics is fundamental, according to Davis.

“Without knowledge of the economics that govern the food system, we have no hope in improving the system,” said Davis.

Written by Amy Loeffler

 

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