Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Member Blog: David Zilberman

My Annual Review 2021

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | December 24, 2021


2021 was a better year than 2020, but there is still much room for improvement. The pandemic continued, and new strains of the virus have emerged – but we have effective vaccines. Leorah and I were vaccinated twice and received a booster shot. We continue to wear a mask and avoid large crowds – but we feel more confident leaving home. I was able to teach in person and work on campus. I realize that I prefer to mix zooming with teaching in-person- mainly working at home with two weekly visits office to campus.

I like traveling, and I was able to do it in 2021. I flew to Israel for work, a family visit, and Austin for the AAEA meeting. Both events required participants to be vaccinated- which is the right policy and makes me feel better. I respect people’s right to refuse to protect themselves, but we need to protect ourselves from the external risks the anti-vaxxers present. I attended my nephew Judah and his wife Gilly’s wedding, met the growing family, and realized that I have become by default the family elder – a dubious honor – but preferable to the alternative.  The vitality and diversity of agricultural economics were on display in Austin. It is much more than farming. It encompasses food and health, climate change, the environment, and economic development. It applies multiple approaches to understand our current reality and find policy solutions.

My wife Leorah and I visited our sons and their families this year. First, we saw our niece Angela and her family at their Oklahoma farm.  Then, we went to Arkansas, where Eyal was successfully operated on for diverticulitis. In the fall, Eyal and his family moved to Seattle, where his brother Shie lives. We visited the two brothers and their families in October.  We were privileged to spend Eyal’s birthday with him. For the first time, we trick-or-treated with four of our grandchildren. And finally, in December, we celebrated Hannukah in New York with Aytan and his family. We participated in the lighting of the world’s largest menorah, wandered through the fantastical #lightscape displays at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and meandered through the amazingly decorated homes of Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. We visited with our Brooklyn Benaderets for the first time in over two years. Our granddaughters have blossomed and developed into accomplished and entertaining elementary school students, and we were able to meet our newest little grandson, Jacob David, for the first time.

In the farmMy research was affected by the pandemic. We found that social distancing measures make sense from an economic perspective. The gains in terms of lives saved, in many cases, are more significant than the economic costs. More interestingly, regions that enacted social distancing and other measures earlier suffered less economically and in terms of health. The crisis triggered innovation and change. Food systems adapted well to the pandemic, became more digitized, and introduced new ways to provide food to homes. Yet, the elderly and the poor suffered most from the pandemic, and unfortunately, cynical politicians manipulated the public, costing many lives to achieve their political aims.

Another area of my research was the bioeconomy. I was part of the Science Advisory Board of the World Food System Summit.  I found that many experts promote organic food and “ecological agriculture” and oppose using many modern technologies, particularly genetic engineering. I see the opposition to science-based solutions like GMOs and CRISPR to be counterproductive. In a recent paper, we detailed the immense loss of lives of poor people in India because of the delayed approval of Golden Rice. We all pay for rejecting scientific progress by Antivaxxers, Climate Change deniers, and Biotechnology resisters. I believe in an alternative vision of agriculture and see it as a critical component of the bioeconomy. With the new capabilities provided by modern biological knowledge, agriculture can produce much more than food. It can also mitigate climate change and provide fuels and valuable chemicals. The adoption of modern technologies can increase rice yields by 30% and triple cocoa yield, and it avails land for the production of biofuels. With modern methods, trees, soils, and algae can sequester carbon. Plant-based meats can save much of animal agriculture’s significant greenhouse gas emissions. But that can happen only with appropriate policies that enable the use of biotechnologies throughout the world and reward reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

I continue to study the economics of supply chains, and this year we had an NBER workshop on risk management in supply chains. My basic premise is that it’s not sufficient to understand the economics of individual markets to conduct practical policy analysis. For this purpose, we need to understand how products and firms interact through supply chains and how supply chains evolve. For example, the pandemic led many restaurants to pivot from selling sit-in meals to takeout food. It also resulted in a growing food delivery sector, from the retailer to the consumer home. We are trying to study how the design of supply chains can address the challenges of climate change. How can food and equipment supply chains be more resilient and less vulnerable to tsunamis and hurricanes? What type of policies will lead to the emergence of supply chains for alternative energy like hydrogen?

One of my favorite activities is contributing to the education of leaders and practitioners, mainly from the developing world. I contributed to the establishment of two programs. One– the BEARS ELP (environmental leadership program), which for 25 years have has had three weeks of summer training for about 40 environmental leaders, mostly from developing countries. Unfortunately, concern about covid prevented us from holding the program last year. Instead, we held a virtual program with more than 40 participants over three months this year. Next year, we will have a hybrid program with two weeks of classes at Berkeley and the equivalent of one week of Zoom. Teaching will not be the same after the Covid-19 pandemic. The second program, The Master of Development Practice (MDP), is a two-year program that provides students with multidisciplinary classroom and field training to become practitioners and agents of change. The MDP graduate group is now associated with the Goldman School of Public Policy. The fit with Goldman is natural, it has a great tradition of training professional Masters’ students, and the MDP adds to Goldman an international dimension. I am confident that the MDP is on a path towards growth and further success.

I am fortunate to have a wonderful wife and family and great colleagues and friends. Being part of UC Berkeley is a treasured privilege. I am hopeful that 2022 will be a good year.   We got a vaccine and now a pill for covid, and our knowledge and capabilities improve constantly; we need to take better advantage of them and get along, which is our biggest challenge as humans.   Happy 2022.

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