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With seed grant, economist studies farmer decisions for better food security

Posted by Seth Truscott | May 31, 2018
Cattle in a farmyard in rural Africa
New research by WSU’s Richard Iles will research links between stress and decision-making in livestock husbandry in rural Africa.

Worldwide, one in five people live on less than $1.25 per day. In rural Africa, much of that income comes from livestock animals like cattle and goats, providing nutrition as well as a livelihood.

Every decision that farmers make about those animals—especially, whether to vaccinate them against common diseases—impacts productivity and the future of their families and communities.

Head shot of Richard Iles
Richard Iles

Thanks to a new Washington State University seed-funding grant, Richard Iles, Assistant Professor in the School of Economic Sciences, is extending his research on how financial stress harms decision-making, particularly among low-income families.

Based in rural Kenya, Iles’ project, “Human cognition and its effects on livestock health and food supply,” looks at how the ability to make good decisions is reduced by financial stress, and whether that stress affects owners’ decisions to vaccinate their livestock.

“By choosing to vaccinate their livestock against diseases, farmers are affecting food security, economic resilience and educational opportunities for children and families,” Iles said. “Early results show that financial stress actually lowers decision-makers’ cognitive ability in the short-run, decreasing productivity and shrinking food supplies for their families.”

With funding from the WSU seed grant, Iles will develop simulation models that more realistically capture how decision-makers respond to unforeseen events and uncertainty, such as sudden disease outbreaks in herds or scarcity of feed. The new models, he said, will give researchers and policy makers a much better idea of, for example, the real value of livestock gifts to low-income households.

Ultimately, Iles’ discoveries could help rural families improve agricultural productivity—a possible key to unlocking self-sustaining potential for many people throughout the globe.

“WSU’s commitment to better understanding the dynamics of poverty and its relationship to health inequality helps promote global engagement and leadership,” he said. “The United States and Washington state have led the world over the past 30 years in seeking to eradicate poverty, stop the spread of communicable diseases, and help protect the lives of women and children.

“With so much progress already made, but with more to do, we’re continuing to drive innovation and research to change lives.”

Iles’ Kenya project receives additional support from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.