We often hear of organic farming and fair-trade coffee, but those are just a few causes célebrés in the complex web of food production. Economics can be baffling to the more fiscally-flummoxed among us, which is why agricultural economics — increasingly known as food, agricultural and resource economics — is such a misunderstood field. It is, however, a burgeoning field, and quickly becoming more renowned for its crucial analysis of a significant issue.
“The agriculture and food sector is the biggest employer in Ontario,” says Alan Ker, giving some perspective. As professor and chair of the food, agricultural and resource economics department at the University of Guelph, he’s found that the discipline is blossoming. “The ‘food’ part is expanding exponentially, [in terms of] where and how it is grown, how and where it is processed, and how it’s sold, [and] is becoming of much greater interest to society,” he says.
As far as applied aspects of economics go, it doesn’t get much more hands-on. “Agricultural economics addresses a wide variety of real-world issues associated with food-production, agri-food markets and marketing, as well as international trade and development, and natural resources and the environment,” explains James Vercammen, a professor in the faculty of land and food systems and Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. “We use the tools of economics and statistical methods to identify market failures, analyze government policies and examine how markets function.” And agricultural economics also differs from the general field of economics in a noteworthy way. “Our degree is significantly more applied and focused on real-world problems and issues than a straight economics degree,” says Ker. Vercammen adds, “There’s less emphasis on theory and more on institutions and data analysis.”
A highly practical field demands highly practical students with sharp mental tools. “The ability to question and think critically is very important. At the graduate level, an affinity for math is very helpful,” says Ker. A touch of creative magic also doesn’t hurt. “Agricultural economists must be creative thinkers,” says Vercammen, “because solving real-world problems is the central goal. Students who are narrow and technique-oriented are less successful than students who learn to collaborate in disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams, and who learn a variety of methods to tackle problems.”
With all sorts of looming issues surrounding food, the pressure can be tough. “Because of the significance of food — and of course its reliance on agriculture — there’s a lot to deliver on to society,” says Ker, before listing the significant challenges like the use of food for health, food sustainability in a growing world, and the existence and sustainability of rural communities to name a few.
As in any field with world-class issues to tackle, there are opportunities to be had. “All of our graduates have jobs usually before the end of their fourth year,” says Ker. “In fact, it’s difficult for us to recruit into our graduate program because of the opportunities students have coming out of our undergrad program.” Vercammen’s experience is similar. “Students with a bachelor degree in agricultural economics tend to do well in the job market because of their diverse and valuable skill set and problem-solving approach,” he says, although he’s quick to add that, “like many disciplines, the really good jobs are available to students with a masters — they’re routinely hired by government agencies, NGOs, banks, and consulting firms.” Ker notes that the opportunities are many and diverse. “Most students work in food or agricultural businesses as well as government agencies, and these are very well-paying jobs with great opportunities for upward mobility.”