Will is a Professor at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition with a secondary appointment in the Department of Economics. Before coming to Tufts, he was a faculty member in Agricultural Economics at Purdue University, as well as the University of Zimbabwe, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Columbia University. From 2006 through 2011 he edited Agricultural Economics, the journal of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, and he has been awarded both the Bruce Gardner Memorial Prize for Applied Policy Analysis (2013) and the Publication of Enduring Quality Award (2014) from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA).
Food Tank had the chance to speak with Will about his work, inspiration, and what small steps everyone can take towards building a better food system.
Will Masters, Professor at the Tufts University, is speaking at Food Tank’s first Boston Summit.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Will Masters (WM): I came to study agriculture and food policy as a path out of rural poverty in low-income regions. Those efforts have been hugely successful, especially in Asia but more recently also in Africa. Now the main challenges for agriculture have shifted towards environmental change, nutrition, and health, and my focus has shifted accordingly.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
WM: The progress we’ve made. We face big challenges but have overcome even greater obstacles in the past.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
WM: My family. They fled from Russia to the U.S. in the late 19th century, and since then, each generation and branch of the family has reinvented itself in their own way. We were lucky to get to America.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
WM: Science. Only recently have scientists developed the research tools needed to monitor environmental change and the impacts of food systems on human health. We are learning fast, creating lots of opportunities to apply that knowledge.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who inspired you?
WM: L.L. Nunn was an engineer and entrepreneur in the late 19th and early 20th century. He developed new ways to train his own employees, and thought that having students run a farm would help them learn universal skills like problem-solving and persistence. You can see how it turned out here.
FT: What’s the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you’d like to see solved?
WM: Climate change. We will need every possible step towards reduced emissions and creative adaptation.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
WM: Eat wisely. A rule of thumb that works for me is to focus on foods grown by poor farmers. They can’t afford to waste fuel-intensive inputs, and tend to use lots of labor to produce a lot of valuable nutrients per unit of land, water, and other resources. Boosting demand also helps raise the value of their labor and land. The result looks like most modern dietary recommendations, involving a mostly plant-based diet that’s high in fiber, with few processed carbohydrates.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
WM: I strongly doubt they’d listen to me, so I’d rather focus on what we can do as civil society. Agriculture, food, and nutrition is a domain in which everyone has opportunities to improve things. The food system offers especially important common ground between people, so can be a basis for dialogue across dividing lines like the geographic gap between rural and urban people.
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