Li Cheng

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear "mooncake?" If you're familiar with Chinese baked goods, you might think of the ubiquitous dessert eaten during an autumn festival. If you're new ESPP student Li Cheng, you might wonder: Would people pay extra to know their mooncake is made with safer additives?

Li asked that very question while conducting research for her bachelor's degree in Beijing. She wanted to gauge peoples' willingness to pay for food safety. She said the basic premise was about the willingness to pay more for "non-market goods," such as cleaner air, water and agriculture practices. Specifically, the team focused on the popular dessert, which she compared to pumpkin pie during Thanksgiving in the U.S.

"If we added safer additives, how much are people willing to pay?" Li explained. "We found people were willing to pay more."

Li is also interested in mathematics and she focused particularly on which methodology would be most efficient in the mooncake study, she said. From there, "that was the foundation for me to pursue the agricultural economics field," she said.

Li obtained a bachelor's degree in Agricultural Economics and Mathematics from Renmin University in China. Li came to MSU in 2009, following her interests in mathematics, food safety and consumer behavior. She is a Ph.D. student in Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE), and this semester she joined ESPP.

In AFRE, she is part of a project to improve farmers' water resource conservation ability by adopting new irrigation technology.

"My part is looking at farmers' behavior perspective in adopting new technology: in this case, irrigation," she said.

Li grew up in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Province in northwest China. She describes it as "the farthest city away from the sea." The fact that she's researching water resources and farmers' response to new irrigation technology is quite fitting, given an experience she had as a 16-year-old.

"The province (where I grew up) lacks water. In my second year of high school, I went to a desert area with classmates. We went for fun, but happened to notice a (Euphrates Poplar) tree. It's a very stubborn tree and can resist a lot, but it was extremely gaunt from over-irrigation," she said. "I was kind of shocked by that."

And the tree Li saw wasn't the only one affected by over-irrigation. It was strange, she said, because the land itself was becoming drier. "A lot of trees died but the river had dried up. It's extremely beautiful there and a great place of interest, but due to over-irrigation, it was changing. That's a major reason for me getting involved with water resources."