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BIDEN INSTITUTE BLOG Faculty Member of the Month

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Dr. Kent Messer

Dr. Kent D. Messer is a behavioral economist who is committed to initiating cutting-edge research that yields creative solutions that are practical, yet groundbreaking, and that are being applied to agriculture and environmental challenges. His academic training is diverse geographically and substantively: he received a BA in Anthropology from Grinnell College, an MS in Resource Policy and Behavior at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and his PhD in Resource Economics from Cornell University. Dr. Messer is the S. Hallock du Pont Professor of Applied Economics.  As the Director of the Center for Experimental & Applied Economics, Dr. Messer has been a principal investigator of research proposals worth over $70 million, including grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Messer has published more than 85 articles in peer-reviewed publications, served as editor of the Agricultural and Resource Economics Review and is on the editorial board of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. He authored two textbooks about using the principles of economics to better protect the environment. His recent book, The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less (Cambridge University Press) challenges conservation professionals to adopt new computer and planning tools that ensure they will select conservation projects that result in taxpayers and donors receiving the greatest benefit – and best-bang-for-their-buck – possible. 

Dr. Messer is currently working on efforts to improve water quality in Delaware, as 92% of the State's waterways are listed as impaired. He is the principal investigator of an ongoing $23 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the State of Delaware that is examining the impact of sea level rise and increasing salinity on water quality issues in coastal areas.  This project is revealing novel insights about the threats and solutions that can protect the environment and improve the livelihoods of people living in Delaware and in coastal environments throughout the nation and world.

Can you briefly talk about your time as the founding director of a Colorado wildlife area and what you found most interesting about your work there?

After graduating from Grinnell College in 1994, I served as the first Executive Director of a Denver-based nonprofit that was determined to develop a new environmental education center at Bluff Lake. Bluff Lake had been closed to the public for over 50 years and was barricaded from the public by 12-foot barbed wire fences that demarcated "crash zones" for the former Stapleton International Airport. I saw Bluff Lake as much more than a crash zone.  The area behind those barbed wire fences teemed with wildlife, such as bald eagles, mule deer, hawks, coyotes, and prairie dogs, that thrived on the largest remnant stand of short grass prairie in Denver. The exciting part of this job was the opportunity to connect with the adjacent low-income, urban communities that suffered from years of noise and pollution associated with the airport.  With this area now open to the public, they could experience the beauty of Colorado in their own back yards.  Proudly, I opened Bluff Lake to the public and developed educational programs for kids and adults.  Twenty-five years, later, I am also thrilled that Bluff Lake continues to thrive:  

What led to your research on the use of recycled wastewater in food production?

People of all political and socio-economic backgrounds want clean drinking water. While many people believe most of our water supplies are used for drinking or for household purposes, actually, the vast majority of water is used to grow food.  This is true both in the United States and throughout the world. Therefore, water scarcity problems are directly related to food scarcity problems. Parts of the western United States regularly experience water shortages and climate change is making rain patterns less predictable. There are also predictions that places that are now considered water abundant will experience water shortages in the future.  One potential solution to these water shortages is the use of "recycled water" to irrigate crops. This recycled water has undergone treatment and would be designed for safe food production…and has been used in Israel for decades. For this approach to be effective in the United States, we need to demonstrate how this water can meet the needs of farmers and consumers. Farmers and governments will resist investing in new recycled water resources if consumers reject food produced with recycled water because of the potential 'yuck' factor. As part of a $10 million grant ( from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, my colleagues and I are studying consumer response to foods grown with recycled irrigation water and identifying ways customers will readily use this water.  For instance, people do not like recycled water being used to grow fresh foods such as strawberries or broccoli, but they do mind if it is being used to grow cotton or to irrigate rangeland that is grazed by livestock.  Consumers also support the idea of injecting this water into aquifers for the purposes of natural cleaning and to help prevent salt water from contaminating coastal groundwater sources, even if they know that this water will be used later to irrigate food. Fining practice ways to use recycled water will benefit farmers, consumers, and the environment in the US – and around the world – today and in the future.  

What inspired you to write a book about strategic conservation and why is it important?

I love spending time in nature and have dedicated my life to conservation.  Yet, I also understand there are many competing needs for taxpayer monies, such as health care, national defense, and education. Thus, I became concerned when I learned that the way most conservation efforts spend their money is terribly inefficient, which ultimately means hundreds of thousands of acres of land go unprotected.  Even more disturbing is that even when government and conservation professionals become aware of this problem they do not take actions to change the selection process. Let me give you an example. In 2012, the National Park Service (NPS) considered 34 land conservation projects totaling nearly 93,000 acres on its National Priority List. The total cost for these projects was approximately $110 million, which far exceeded NPS's available budget. Using its traditional selection approach which ignored the cost of the parcels, the NPS selected two projects in Florida: one for $5.5 million that protected 43,000 acres in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the other for $25 million that protected 477 acres in the Everglades National Park. If both the environmental benefits and the land costs had been properly taken into account simultaneously (with computer applications), the NPS could have re-allocated the money to protect 28,607 high priority acres in a dozen different states for the same cost.  That is a big difference and it matters. This is just one example of many. I wrote this book as a wake-up call for conservationists so they can both recognize the problem and begin to use science-based, cost-effective approaches that "protect more for less."  

Since founding the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics over ten years ago, what changes have you seen in how our agricultural policy affects the general public and/or the economy?

In the past 10 years, I have seen several major changes and challenges for the agricultural sector. First, the prices of major commodities such as corn and soybean have fluctuated dramatically causing significant challenges for farmers as they seek to support their livelihoods and make long-term investments in their land and farms. I have also seen serious weather challenges impact agricultural products such as the drought that occurred in California and the recent spring floods in the Midwest. At the same time the public's interest in food and agriculture has increased. Consumers are feeling out of touch with where their food is coming from and are calling for greater transparency and labeling about how their food was grown. Consumers are demanding more local food, organic food, and greater animal welfare. Thus retailers, such as Walmart and Amazon, are responding to these changing consumer preferences and this impacting how food is grown, leaving farmers trying to guess about what consumers will want next.

How has climate change effected your research?

Climate change is largely recognized as a problem that has arisen due to human behavior. Therefore, understanding and modifying human behavior will be critical in addressing climate change.  As a behavioral economist, I seek to develop and test cost-effective, evidence-based solutions that can reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and facilitate the behavioral adaptation to the new realities that come with the changing climate.    

From a local, state or national perspective, what do you see as being the top three issues that need to be addressed in your area of research?

I currently serve as the co-director for the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research, a USDA Center of Excellence ( CBEAR has identified three top issues requiring additional research. First, research is needed to determine 'what works' in encouraging landowners to adopt conservation practices.  In particular, it is important to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of various financial and educational programs that seek to encourage adoption of these practices. Second, these is essentially no research on why some people continue doing environmentally friendly behaviors and others 'dis-adopt' these behaviors.  Consider the use of crops by farmers.  Cover crops are planted in the winter to promote soil health and reduce nutrient and soil runoff.  A number of government programs currently pay farmers to plant cover crops.  But what happens when the payments stop?  Do farmers persist in their use of cover crops or do they stop using them?  The cost-effectiveness of most environmental programs, such as cover crops, is highly depending on whether long-term behavioral patterns are sustained, and thus, understanding (and preventing) dis-adoption is critically important. Third, we need to better understand how the use of more efficient technologies changes other behaviors.  For instance, after farmers adopt water conservation efforts do they increase the amount of land they irrigate?  If so, the actual amount of water used does not change with the introduction of water efficiency technology.  Likewise, as lightbulbs become more efficient do we use more of them? As cars get better gas mileage do we drive them more?  Imperative in the immediate years ahead are visionary citizens and political leaders enacting agricultural and environmental policies, rooted in scientific knowledge, ethical commitment, economic realism, and environmental sustainability.  

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