Caring about the price of tea in China

Caring about the price of tea in China

June 23, 2015

Anna Herzberger is an MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability doctoral student studying Chinese at Peking University the summer of 2015. She hails from the farmlands of Virginia, Ilinois.

I have probably heard the old saying  “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” a hundred times. Growing up, my parents would use it to denote that something was irrelevant, unconnected, removed or the furthest thing possible from the current subject matter.  “Tea” here was generic. My parents could have been saying “What does that have to do with the price of soybeans in China?” This might have made more sense considering we are a fourth-generation farming family and this is where the story gets interesting.

My family farm specializes in commodity crop production, meaning we grow LOTS of soybeans. Illinois is the number one state for soybean production and almost half of the food produced is exported internationally. The United States is the number one producer and exporter of soybeans, globally. While China was responsible for domesticating the soybean, it now imports 80 percent of its soybeans. In 2013 alone, China imported 24 million tons of soybeans (worth $13 billion) from the United States. This is the connection between my family farm and global price of soybeans, Soybean imports in China are much cheaper than domestic soybeans. This price inequality sends ripples through the market, affecting the supply and price of soybeans and essentially all products with major implications for food security in China as well as the world.

I became aware of this connection when I joined the Center for Systems Integration & Sustainability (CSIS) under the mentorship of Dr. Jack Liu. Dr. Liu is a pioneer of telecoupled human and natural systems, which is a way to study human and natural systems that span great distances together, by acknowledging that humans are apart of the natural system rather than removed from it.

In the case of something like, let’s say…. global soybean trade. There are multiple countries that are connected via soybean trade even though they’re geographically far apart. This interaction has major environmental, social and economic effects that can be hard to predict. Dr. Liu and his collaborators developed the telecoupling framework to address the complexity and uncertainty associated with global connections. I plan to use the concept of telecoupling to explore the impacts that distant markets make on food security, the economy and environment. For example, how the soybean exports from the United States (including my small community) are impacting farmers’ decisions across the globe?

But, how to study such a complex and connected system? How does one gather the information on things happening around the world? To understand the impact soybeans from my backyard have around the world, I’m spending this summer in Beijing immersing myself in Chinese language and culture. This will allow for effective communication on both sides of the telecoupling, farmers in the U.S. and China. This experience will bring insight, depth, and understanding to my research and hopefully prove that the price of tea in China does resonate here.



Trip to china

Good luck with your timely research.
I am sure your dad is proud of you and worried.

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