Economist studies effects of trade disputes, Arctic ice melt and pesticide exposure

Sandro Steinbach (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Sandro Steinbach (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Sandro Steinbach is an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources’ Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. While his two master of science degrees and Ph.D. are in economics, he earned his undergraduate degrees in horticultural sciences and agricultural sciences. His wide knowledge facilitates Steinbach’s study of a broad range of issues through the lens of an economist.

Says Steinbach, “I conduct collaborative and interdisciplinary research at the crossroads of applied economics and data science. I am particularly interested in research questions that relate to international trade and investment as well as the environment and human well-being.”

Steinbach’s current research projects relate to international trade and the effects of foreign trade policies on US agriculture. In one project supported by USDA NIFA, Steinbach is working with co-investigator Colin Carter of the University of California, Davis, to evaluate the impact of trade disputes on agriculture in the United States.

“Because US farmers and food processors sell a significant share of their production abroad, the growing number of trade disputes is a primary concern for the viability of agriculture,” Steinbach says. “So far, we know little about the implications of these trade policy changes.” Steinbach is compiling a novel dataset of trade disputes targeting US agricultural exports from 1990 to 2020 and is developing an innovative statistical approach to accurately measure the impact of these policy changes.

The recent trade war with China is one example of how trade policies affect US agricultural producers. Says Steinbach, “We use machine learning techniques, a type of artificial intelligence, to infer the causal effects of retaliatory tariffs, taking into account what would have happened if this policy had not been put into place.”

He continues, “We need to better understand the implications of foreign trade policy changes as they can impact not only foreign trade but also induce changes in the market structure. This is crucial knowledge as such policies alter the incentive structure for agricultural producers. We develop methods and tools to learn from past policy decisions with the goal to improve the design of new trade policies.”

In another NIFA-funded project, Steinbach is working to measure the impact of foreign direct investment on agriculture in the United States. “These investments are vital for the agricultural and food industry as they ensure economic growth and prosperity, create employment opportunities, spur innovation and drive international trade,” Steinbach explains. “But we know little about their impact on firm performance and their potential to create labor market spillover effects.”

“Our goal is to provide essential knowledge on the functioning of markets in light of a changing trade and investment environment, which in turn can enhance market efficiency and performance,” he says. “We need to know how these investments by foreign investors affect US agricultural and food producers. This knowledge can help to better understand the underlying mechanisms that determine the agricultural system and could help to improve agricultural policies.”

Steinbach is also working with Professor Rigoberto Lopez on a project funded by the USDA Economic Research Service to assess retail competition in rural food markets and investigate the impact of dollar stores on rural employment and independent grocery stores. “Since 2008, the growth of dollar stores has been remarkable,” Steinbach says. “They are averaging 1,000 new stores per year, adding to the 32,000 current locations, which tend to be in rural and low-income areas.”

In another two-year collaborative project with Douglas Brugge, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at UConn Health, and Eric Loken, associate professor in the Neag School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, the team will measure the developmental impact of pesticide exposure on children and teenagers.

“Despite extensive research efforts, the human development consequences of pesticide exposure remain poorly understood,” Steinbach points out. The team will focus on the San Joaquin Valley in California, for which they have access to field-level pesticide application data from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. They will use this data as well as land use and weather datasets from the USDA and NOAA to determine pesticide spray movement, pollution levels and pesticide exposure in the areas where the students live and go to school. The information from these studies will be related to academic test results from the California Department of Education in a statistical model.

In addition, to better understand the relationship between pesticide exposure and academic performance, the team will look at various other systemic factors that could affect student success, such as other environmental influences, demographics, economic conditions and individual risk factors.

Steinbach is co-lead author of a recent paper published in Nature Communications entitled “Biological Weed Control to Relieve Millions from Ambrosia Allergies in Europe.” The study evaluated ragweed pollen exposure based on the European Pollen Monitoring Program to determine the benefits of biological control for ragweed management in Europe resulting from the accidental introduction of the North American leaf beetle (Ophraella communa). While many studies of invasive species highlight the damage caused to native plants from invasive insects, this study found that there may be benefits from this invasive beetle. Ragweed pollen allergies cause misery, and ragweed blooms seem to be increasing as weather patterns change with global warming. In test plots, the beetle impact showed a reduction in the number of days of offending ragweed pollen as well as an overall reduction of ragweed pollen concentrations. The study estimates that the overall health and economic benefits of a systematic beetle propagation would be substantial.

Moving forward, Steinbach is excited about a new project for which he is assembling a team to study the effects of global warming and the reduction of arctic ice on economic welfare, trade and the environment. As the Arctic ice melts, the potential for economic activity in that area increases as cargo ships are able to significantly reduce travel time by going through arctic waters. Steinbach is interested in the implications of this change for trade and global welfare, as well as other factors such as the governing structure of arctic waters, safety, environmental pollution and the potential effects on local communities.

“I think it’s an essential applied research question that requires an interdisciplinary approach that bridges economics to data science, climate science and politics,” he says.

Research described in this article is funded by USDA NIFA award #2019-67023-29343 and #2020-67024-30964; USDA Economic Research Services; and the University of Connecticut.

By Kim Colavito Markesich