Current Research Objectives
One-third of the world’s food is wasted. For an economist like myself, programed to optimize utility and maximize efficiency, the idea that we are so wasteful with our food just doesn’t sit well. Yet, when you think about it, this makes perfect economic sense. Today, our food is so cheap that being wasteful is a viable business strategy for the food industry. And the same holds true for us, the consumers.
My research focuses on the price of seafood. I ask the question: what’s in the price of fish? Or, more specifically, what’s missing that allows it to be so cheap? It’s what economists refer to as ‘externalities’: cost, or benefit, that affects those who did not choose to incur such cost or benefit. Depletion of fish stocks that diminish the potential catches for future generations and fishing practices that result in high bycatch but keep the operating cost low— these are essentially subsidies from our future, our communities, and our environment that enable us to maintain cheap seafood. Moreover, fishing has values beyond its function in food production. In many cases, fishing occurs in rural regions where it occupies a significant role in the region’s economy, lifestyle, culture, and history. These are values that are not captured by the prices we see in the market. My goal is to determine the total price, or ‘guilt-free’ price, that accounts for all these externalities.
Of course, I recognize the role that fish play in food security of coastal communities, as well as the cultural importance of seafood—I am half Japanese after all. And, therefore, I continue to struggle to find the balance between my belief that seafood should be more expensive yet at the same time, that seafood should not become a luxury food; it should be available to those who need it, not enjoyed only by those who can afford it. So, the second component of my research—my applied work—is to look at the current business practices of large seafood firms, from fishing fleets up to retailers, and present an alternative model that can somehow internalize the externalities of fishing, but at the same time keep seafood affordable to all. For this, I am focusing on the principle of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): the idea that firms embrace responsibilities for their actions and encourage positive impacts through their activities on consumers, environment, and communities. We live in the world where corporate images are increasingly influencing corporate decision-making and where our concerns over food safety are driving greater transparency in the food industry. As such, I believe there is an opportunity to harness the demand for CSR in the seafood industry to generate change.
Ultimately, my hope is to create a case study of a sustainable business model for seafood with an industry partner; a model that does not involve wasting one-third of the fish that we catch from the sea.
Fisheries subsidies negotiation at the WTO
The 'field' component part of my PhD thesis involved a six-month stint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland. Here, I worked as a research officer involved in the negotiations for an international agreement on fisheries subsidies. From this experience, I composed an overview of the key issues and positions surrounding this debate. My conclusion: the key driver of subsidies reform must come from domestic policy rather than multi-national regulations (except maybe in the case of high seas tuna).
Ex-vessel price database
This research was my chance to do some good old number crunching. Using a previously developed database on ex-vessel price (i.e. the port-side sale price a fisherman received), I designed an approach for estimating seafood prices across countries. This model greatly enhanced the database, allowing for improved evalution of economic dynamics of fisheries around the world.
Expansion of Seafood Consumption Footprint
Using the concept of Primary Production Required (i.e. seafood expressed in units of phytoplankton) relative to how much phytoplankton is produced by ocean areas, I assessed the speed at which the global fisheries have geographically expanded since 1950. The result of this study showed that industrial fishing fleets are operating farther offshore and into previously unexploited waters in the Southern Hemisphere.
We turned this concept into society's "Seafood Consumption Footprint", which was featured in the Oct 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Consumption Footprints of EU, US & Japan
Fish is one of the most highly traded commodities on the planet. Using an idea first developed in my Masters thesis, I examined the geographic origins of fish consumed in the world's three leading seafood markets. The resulting maps produced from the data in this study, showed that the distribution and trade network of these markets are truly global and reach all the corners of our oceans.