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Tuk tuk on the Mall

Video by Ashley Barnas

UD researchers conduct consumer behavior studies in Washington

The University of Delaware’s Center for Experimental and Applied Economics (CEAE) rolled out its innovative tuk tuk at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers Market on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Sept. 30, conducting a study on consumers’ preferences for food produced with non-traditional irrigation water.

The CEAE tuk tuk, a mobile lab with the appearance similar to that of a Thailand food truck, helps attract subjects of all demographics, making it a great tool for research in that it brings in a wide variety of participants. During Friday’s event, about 150 people participated in the experiment, which is considered a great turnout.

The invitation from the USDA to have UD’s tuk tuk at the Farmers Market was to demonstrate how behavioral and experimental economics can help inform USDA policy. 

Mary Bohman, administrator of the USDA Economic Research Service, personally invited CEAE because of the tuk tuk and its charming utility. The event was attended by many USDA officials including Eleanor Starmer, administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

The research study is led by Kent Messer, Unidel Howard Cosgrove Chair for the Environment in the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics and director of CEAE; Sean Ellis, a doctoral student in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and DENIN Environmental Fellow; and Maddi Valinski, laboratory manager for CEAE and program coordinator for the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research (CBEAR).

Through their research, Messer and Ellis are exploring the behavior of consumers as they select food that has varying impacts on the environment.

The USDA Farmers Market

“Consumers often are not aware of how big a role water plays in producing their food. The number one use of water goes toward food production. Using recycled water that is treated and safe could be really valuable for our environment – especially in places like California that are having severe water shortages,” said Messer.

At the USDA Farmers Market, Messer and Ellis conducted a study with real purchasing decisions, looking at customers’ preferences and the amount of money they are willing to pay for conventionally irrigated produce versus produce grown with different types of recycled water.

“Some people express concern about the use of non-traditional water sources and want to make sure that it is safe. They also want to make sure that their food does not use too much water, as they want it to be available to support the environment and meet other societal needs,” said Messer.

Ellis is working to find if there is a stigma surrounding recycled water as a whole or just certain types of recycled water and trying to mitigate that stigma. Paying attention to how consumers respond to produce grown with different types of recycled water – such as carrots, grapes and almonds, which require a lot of water to be grown – Ellis will be able to gauge consumers’ willingness to accept or even pay more for produce grown with different types of recycled water.

“A lot of people have initial questions about produce grown with recycled water because they assume it is recycled ‘black water,’ which is treated toilet water. In our research, we test consumers’ preferences for produce grown with different types of water that government agencies have determined to be safe – including black, gray (which is treated wastewater from washing machines) and produced water (which is treated wastewater from oil and gas drilling) – to find out whether this impacts consumers’ buying decisions in a positive or negative way. Are they willing to spend a little more because it has a low water footprint, or does the idea of recycled water completely turn them off?” says Ellis.

The research is part of a $10 million grant from CONSERVE (COordinating Nontraditional Sustainable watER use in Variable climatEs): A Center of Excellence at the Nexus of Sustainable Water Reuse project.

CONSERVE involves a multidisciplinary team, that includes UD, the University of Maryland College Park, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and the University of Arizona, as well as the USDA Agriculture Research Service, which is dedicating itself to developing innovative, safe and sustainable ways to irrigate food crops in variable climates.

Support from this research comes from the USDA Economic Research Service and the national Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research (CBEAR) which is co-headquartered at UD.

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