Thijs van Rens, February 2015
I recently started working on the economics of food and food security, and I am looking to supervise students interested in exploring an aspect of this issue. Food security is defined as providing all people with ‘access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life’. There are many dimensions to this problem and below is a brief description of five possible research topics. Note that these are topics and not (yet) research questions. Your first task is to formulate, within the topic of your choice, an interesting research question that can be answered with the methods and data available to you.
Is obesity due to food insecurity?
In recent decades, obesity rates have been trending upward at an alarming rate. This trend is so dramatic that it is commonly referred to as the ‘obesity epidemic’. It seems reasonable that at least part of the reason for the obesity epidemic is a shift towards unhealthier diets, but the evidence is mixed. A large number of studies explores the links between diet, exercise, income, obesity and health, but these studies are often plagued by endogeneity problems. Is there a causal link from lack of access to healthy food or an unhealthy diet to obesity?
Economic history of food processing
Technological improvements in the food industry lead to sharp reductions in the per-calorie price of food. This reduction in costs was achieved primarily through the development of food ‘processing’. Processing food dramatically increases its shelf-life and therefore reduces distribution costs. However, processed food also tends to be less healthy. What exactly is food processing? What were the economic incentives underlying its development? To what extent did or does the market internalize the health effects of eating bad food? What were the effects of the development of food processing on the food industry’s costs and profit margins? Is the food industry to blame for our increasingly unhealthy diet?
Why do people buy unhealthy food?
Most people value their health. Yet, we buy unhealthy food en masse. Why do consumers make these seemingly irrational choices? Are they uninformed about the health effects of diet? Do they like unhealthy food better than healthy food? Can they not afford healthy food? What do consumers choices reveal about the value they put on their health?
Why is unhealthy food so cheap?
I often hear the claim that it is cheaper to buy chips than to buy potatoes and cook them at home. Is this true? How can that be (presumably, the chips shop needs to buy the potatoes as well)?
Location choice of supermarkets and other food stores
Part of the issue with providing people with access to healthy food is that they need to have physical access to a store that sells healthy food. What determines where grocery retail outlets locate? Clearly population density is a factor, but so is the presence of other, competing stores. And how far do customers travel for groceries? We would expect large differences between urban and rural areas in this respect. Car ownership and poverty rates are likely to be important considerations as well. Is the location of stores that is optimal from a profit-maximization point of view efficient from the perspective of consumers or the government?
Food deserts in Coventry and the Warwickshire
Food ‘deserts’ are areas where a substantial fraction of the population does not have access to healthy food. Measuring food deserts is a non-trivial exercise. Clearly, the distance to the nearest store(s) matters, but also the prices that these stores charge for healthy food: it does not help to have a farmers’ market in front of your home if you cannot afford the food sold there. Find out where stores are located and what they charge for a basket of healthy and unhealthy food, then come up with a way to put a price on distance and map out access to healthy food in Coventry and the Warwickshire? Are there any food deserts in this area? How does living in a food desert correlate with economic and health outcomes?
For topics suggested by organizations working on food security, see the FRC Research Wanted page. Most of these are not economics though.
I am happy to supervise dissertations on other topics as well, but on the conditions that (1) it is your own responsibility to find a topic that is both interesting and feasible in the context of an MSc dissertation, and (2) the topic is within my area of expertise, which is unemployment and the macroeconomics of the labor market.