Greenhouse Canada

New Arrell Family Chair at U of G to focus on ‘people side’ of agri-economics

June 5, 2023  By University of Guelph

June 5, 2023 – A new $1-million research chair in an emerging field at the University of Guelph is intended to make agri-food production more efficient and ensure sustainable food production in Canada and around the world.

The inaugural 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 in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (FARE) within the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC).

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 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.


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

“The Arrell Family Foundation is excited to support Li’s innovative research, which strives to better understand and unpack the black box of economic decision-making, particularly pertaining to activities in the agri-food-environmental domain,” said Laura Arrell, in a press release.

Bringing together economics and human behaviour

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,” said Li, in a press release.

She said more efficient economic choices can help save money for consumers and producers and mitigate environmental impacts of food production.

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,” said Li.

Also key, she said, is updating conventional supply-and-demand economic theory to include actual, contemporary decision-making in the equations.

Efficient resource allocation – with a human touch

Li’s lab is supported by various agencies and groups, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Genome Canada, and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, a collaboration between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph

Li has also attracted funding from American organizations including the United States Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

She collaborates with major American and European research networks in experimental economics. Besides drawing more students to U of G, she said, “This chair position will attract researchers, policy makers and practitioners into a comparable research network in Canada.”

Li completed a PhD at Washington State University and joined U of G in 2019. Referring to FARE, she said, “This is a dream department to work with in agri-food economics.”

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