I was invited to the American Farm Bureau (AFBF) Convention in January to give a keynote at the Communicate, Connect, and Influence program hosted by the AFBF Promotion & Education Committee. I also led a couple of breakout sessions on this very topic: having those tough conversations.Here’s what we learned…
Our conversations about agriculture and food production frequently escalate into arguments at key moments — moments where we feel we have been aggrieved, mistreated or wronged.
We all agree that inaccurate information informs many people’s perspectives about agriculture and other things like science and public health. Misinformation can shape perceptions in damaging ways. It mispresents our industries, our livelihoods, and – yes – our way of life.
That. Gets. Personal. 🧡
When things get “personal” — when we feel violated or wronged — things can quickly go off the path and in unexpected ways. We let go of any desire we may have to solve a problem or reach consensus, we lose whatever hold we have on good will or in building trust and we direct our attention on an entirely different goal: On being right! I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. And here’s the paradox: those we are arguing with believe they are right, too….
What we continue to learn through the process of dialog is that changing hearts and minds can’t be our primary goal. Our conversations about agriculture should put relationships first.
It’s not about keeping score. No end zone, no goal posts. When we begin to look at these conversations as leisurely walks down country roads instead of games, that’s when the conversations become easier and more enduring, especially when we focus on who’s beside us on that road instead of what’s in front or behind us.
Check out the original article here on Purdue University’s Centerfor Food and Agribusiness website.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is popping up on the media radar again. Because of this, I thought it timely to re-post some of old news to provide a bit more context to the new news. FOIA. For me, it’s personal.
May, 2016. Several weeks ago, I was notified by my alma mater (the University of Saskatchewan) that the US Right to Know (USRTK) had submitted an Access To Information Act (ATIP) request seeking the production of documents pertaining to:
“.…Camille (Cami) D. Ryan, formerly a professional associate in the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics at the College of Agriculture”.
I was not surprised. Why? For the past year or more, I watched this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issue unfold. High profile academics working in agricultural research and outreach all over North America, and their home institutions, were subjected to public records requests from USRTK. I have had close working relationships with only a few of these academics. One is my former PhD supervisor, some have been co-authors on articles or chapters, others I have had the opportunity to meet/work with at conferences or other science-related events. Many I haven’t even met while others I have only connected with in passing. I know them all by reputation. These academics are credible, public sector scientists with decades of experience working in agriculture-related research. They are plant and animal geneticists, political economists, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc., who – through their work – are making significant steps forward in crop research, varietal development, and in how our food is produced and distributed in the world. While I recognize that I am just a ‘small fish’ in a ‘large pond’ of brilliant academics, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I received a request due to these connections that I have and (more likely) to my recent move to Monsanto.
What the FOIA?!
FOIA and its Canadian equivalent, ATIP, are laws enacted to allow for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by government organizations (including public sector universities). These laws and the ‘request mechanisms’ are intended to protect public interest by ensuring that public sector organizations and those that are employed by them are operating on the up-and-up. Quite simply, they are accountability mechanisms.
Early last year, 14 US scientists were targeted with FOIA records requests. As of now, that number has risen to well over 40 and more recent efforts have expanded into multiple rounds of searches of emails requested by not only USRTK, but other NGOs, activists, and journalists as well. All are intent on looking for “nefarious” connections linking public sector researchers with corporations and other industry organizations.
Let’s be clear. Relationships between academics and industry do exist. I have blogged about the Genome Canada model here. Few, if any, academics would apologize for these kinds of interactions. In the agriculture sector, academic-industry connections have led to important changes in the food security system, to the development of better crop varieties, and other innovations that have social and economic value. The impetus behind this is laid out in the Morill Act (Steve Savage talks in more detail about that here) with the stated purpose for Land Grant universities to promote research, education, and outreach in the “agricultural and industrial arts”. Yes, outreach. The relationships between the public and private sectors are part of this mission to ensure that socially and economically valuable innovations reach the people who need them.
FOIA Me. FOIA You.
The tidy little package that the USRTK will receive from the U of S will consist of only 168 pages of emails sourced from my account via the university server. These emails were generated based upon a search (17 search terms identified by USRTK such as “Monsanto”, “Syngenta”, “BASF”, “Ketchum”, etc) of my email folders covering the two-year span of time from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013 (when my research contract ended with the U of S).
Yep. That’s 168. Pages. This is a mere drop in the FOIA bucket. In my case, the estimated invoice for production of these documents by the U of S for USRTK is ~$3500 CDN. But this amount doesn’t even begin to reflect the actual costs imposed on university faculty and personnel, including those that work in IT, administration, and the university’s legal department. Now, amplify these kinds of costs across 40+ FOIA respondents and their home institutions. Imagine the time, administration, and opportunity costs that have been amassed all across North America for this FOIA initiative.
The social and economic costs are considerable. This means less time spent on conducting research, training graduate students, teaching, and writing/administering grant applications.
While USRTK and others purport to uncover mass collusion in agricultural research, what they are really uncovering is the social, human animal at work. Nothing more. These are scientists – #scientistsarepeople – working in related areas, interacting with one another and exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and co-publishing; working to find solutions to social, economical and scientific challenges that cannot be addressed by any one person, organization or institution in isolation.
Access to information doesn’t (necessarily) mean the public will be enlightened to new and deliberatively hidden truths. It means that the public has access to someone’s version of the truth. There is always a mediator with an agenda. Ask first who’s asking for the information and then ask why. Then maybe you can figure out what colour brush they are using to paint that picture with. Sometimes laws intended to enlighten throw shadows on the wrong people, places, and things.
So, who the FOIA cares?
We should all care. The costs alone are problematic (see above). These email requests amount to taking a subset of raw footage and twisting it into stories that feed into an inflexible, pre-conceived narrative. While freedom of information laws are designed to serve a public good (ensure accountability), they can also be used as tools to intimidate and diminish public good – to subvert democracy.
The silver lining to this cloudy issue may be in the ‘call to action’ for those of us working in the areas of agriculture, science, and innovation. Scientists are the experts. As experts and advocates in private and public sectors, we need to continue to work (collectively) towards solving problems that make sense for societies. But we also need to communicate better about how these relationships are structured and why they matter. Now – more than ever – we need to be transparent about the work that we do and how we do it if we are to earn and maintain public trust.
Disinformation. It’s easy to believe and hard to ignore. More and more we are beginning to understand how much mis/disinformation leads to socioeconomic costs and how it impacts scientific integrity. Here are a few sources/links that (I hope) helps us continue the dialogue:
1) A link to the study we published in February 2020. It is entitled The Monetization of Disinformation: the case of GMOs and was published in a special issue of the European Management Journalon The Dark Side of Social Media. The journal article but provides evidence and understanding of how misinformation impacts science and societies. We use GMOs as a case study, but this could (generally) apply to any number of issues (from farm to fork and beyond (public health issues)).
We analyzed a dataset of 94,993 unique online articles (2009-2019) for the evaluation of various tactics that contribute to the evolving GMO narrative. Preliminary results suggest that a small group of alternative health and pro-conspiracy sites received more totals engagements on social media than sites commonly regarded as media outlets on the topic of GMOs. Other externalities observed include continued social and political controversy that surround the GMO topic, events (demonstrations, legislative initiatives, ballots, etc) as well as the growth of additional product and marketing approaches such as “non-GMO” verification.
Figure: Total shares of GMO online articles over time (2009-2019)
Figure: Key Events and Online Engagement (2009-2019)
Social media has revolutionized how we connect as human beings and is a vehicle for sharing false or deceptive information (disinformation).
Disinformation is firmly planted in the ‘attention economy’, a competitive economy where human attention is a scarce resource.
Disinformation is used by vendors to attract readership with strategies to monetize it.
Disinformation influences public opinion and risk perceptions and this, in turn, results in policies developed based on disinformation rather than scientific evidence.
Disinformation has been used to problematize science, impeding innovation and affecting social license to operate across a number of sectors (science, farming and food production, etc).
Importance of the study
Distortion of science inappropriately raises the risk profile of good technologies which results in delays in getting socially vital products to the market (e.g., virus resistant cassava), or shelved or unrealized innovations (e.g., New Leaf potato, Calgene tomato), and even the loss of important research through vandalization of field trials.
Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J., Ecker, U. K. H., Albarracín, D., Amazeen, M. A., Kendeou, P., Lombardi, D., Newman, E. J., Pennycook, G., Porter, E. Rand, D. G., Rapp, D. N., Reifler, J., Roozenbeek, J., Schmid, P., Seifert, C. M., Sinatra, G. M., Swire-Thompson, B., van der Linden, S., Vraga, E. K., Wood, T. J., Zaragoza, M. S. (2020). The Debunking Handbook 2020.
Excerpt: “What I have grown to understand is it is short-sighted for any of us to debate the outcomes of any case in any part of the world without first having a deeper discussion about litigation norms, cultures, and practices. Norms, cultures, and practices vary by country and jurisdiction.”
The decision to transition from public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector was part strategy and part leap of faith for me. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I considered my options (along with other offers that came my way) and I decided to join Monsanto. My role was the first of its kind in the company; the first of its kind in the industry. The career challenges associated with that alone attracted me. But I was also keenly aware that social science and humanities disciplines serve an important role in understanding and informing society during difficult times. The agricultural industry – and food production more broadly – was struggling with a public image problem. While my publicly funded research activities had been largely devoted to understanding this complex environment and in communicating through it, I also believed that my new role would present greater opportunity to be part of meaningful solutions. The move to Monsanto was a risk – but it was a calculated one. I viewed this opportunity as a social science case study of a lifetime.
But I underestimated just how tough that transition would be.
After more than a year working for the company remotely from my home in Alberta, I jumped at the chance to move down to headquarters in St. Louis to work face-to-face with my Monsanto colleagues. I made the move in December of 2015 and my husband, Blair, joined me a couple of months later. We settled on a lovely little farm outside of Eureka, Missouri; one with a charming old farmhouse (in need of an update), a barn, and space that could accommodate our collection of critters (horses, dogs). It was all very idyllic and I was optimistic about the future.
Then everything changed.
By mid-March of 2016, I found myself firmly wedged in a soul-sucking depression. In hindsight, I can identify several triggers for this. I left grown kids, friends, and family behind in Canada. I really misjudged how difficult that would be for me; how lonely I would find life so far from the people I loved. And don’t get me started on the daily commute. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (current population ~300K) was largest city I’ve ever lived in my life prior to this move. So, a 40-minute commute on major artery (formerly known as Route 66) intimidated the hell out of me. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great way to start and end each day in a job that I was already struggling to wrap my head around. I was in a new country, experiencing a new (corporate) culture. To say that the colour had faded from my life was an understatement. My days were grey and interspersed with a series of drab, monochromatic moments. I also noticed the subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) way relationships changed with my old academic friends and colleagues. Where once doors were held open wide, things had now been reduced to awkward exchanges through peepholes. While I anticipated I would be met with these kinds of challenges when I made the leap to the private sector, I was not prepared for how I would feel about it when I faced them. It was like I’d been voted off the island.
To be clear, this bout of depression wasn’t my ‘first rodeo’. And while I was disappointed to find my feet firmly planted in another one, I was also grateful when I finally recognized it. What I’d learned from past experiences was that being open and honest about my depression didn’t make me broken, it made me human. I recognized a pattern, too. Depression seems to find me at times of mind-numbing upheaval in my life (loss of loved ones) or major life shifts (physical moves or career changes). With this latest bout, I discovered that I lacked the emotional bandwidth to manage a life change of this magnitude. I needed help. And I got it.
Let’s face it, you can’t find your way around depression, you must find your way through it. A turning point came for me later in 2016 when the farmhouse renovation was finally done. We settled into a home life that was free of disruptive construction noises; one with a fully functioning kitchen (for us, the heart of the home). I could finally ‘nest’ and establish our ‘sanctuary’. While my connection to friends and family in the home country had indeed changed, by this point we had come up with fun, new ways to connect in creative ways through daily texts and Snapchat groups. Something that also really helped me through the dark days was guidance I received from my new boss. She provided me with a compass (a map, if you will) so that I could navigate through this very puzzling space we call ‘corporate culture’.
Companies like Monsanto traditionally hire people with know-how in finance, law, communications, agronomy, plant genetics, and engineering. I was different. I was firmly entrenched in my identity and experience as a social science academic and – for a while -I didn’t feel like I was a “fit”. You know, the proverbial ‘square peg’ in a ’round hole’. I often think that the transition would have been so much easier if there were more people like me at the company. I recognized long ago the value that people with expertise like mine can bring to a company like this; to an industry like agriculture. But it took a while for me to convey that value in a way that my Monsanto colleagues could connect with and understand.
There are huge opportunities for all manner of social science and humanities disciplines in the agricultural industry. While corporations need to better recognize these opportunities, academia also needs to get past its antipathy towards corporations. There is room for and real opportunity in corporations for people with all kinds of expertise in the social sciences and humanities: people like cultural anthropologists, behavioral scientists, social psychologists, etc.
Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it. The transition from public sector research to the private sector represented a move away from my academic ‘clan’. I was wholly unprepared for how this would affect me personally and professionally. The good news is that I found my way through it. I learned the language. Yes, there’s a ‘language’ here in the corporate space. I learned how to communicate my ideas in ways that my colleagues could understand so that I could mobilize those ideas and get things done. I realized that I could navigate and find a place in this corporate space while still maintaining my values and my identity.
We often underestimate how even the subtlest of shifts in life can impact our capacity to manage them. What I’ve discovered through all of this is that being different is an asset, being vulnerable can lift you up, asking for help is OK, and – most importantly – maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards. You just need the courage to persevere.
Last year, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.
In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful?
The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I ended up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.
As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story – when it’s told well – releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. These chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.
As an industry, we have come to recognize this power that storytelling has. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience. Yes, farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:
1) Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If stories don’t reflect our personal and network identities, we are less likely to connect with them and the storytellers because – let’s face it – our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.
2) Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Think outside your own bubble (community, tribe, sector, discipline, vocation…).
3) Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:
Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.
4) Avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is when we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then quickly move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.
Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. We must keep in mind, however, that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek avenues to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.
This blog post a slightly re-imagined version of guest postI wrote for SAIFood.ca in May 2017. That original post is here.
The Twitterz and the TikToks tell us that skinny jeans and side parts are to the Gen Z generation today what fortrel pants were to us (Gen X/Boomers) in the 80s. Have you heard of fortrel? It’s how we referred to polyester, back in the day. (Yes, I just said ‘back in the day’).
This post is a re-imagining of one I wrote back in 2017. Its title was “Self, society, and the science of skinny jeans.” I took some liberties.
This past weekend, for the umpteenth time, I cracked open Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: why our brains are wired to connect (2013). I skimmed through it like I normally do with non-fiction books. I picked out bits and pieces – like an uncle foraging through a Sunday smorgasbord – finding things that I find intellectually appetizing (AKA things that confirm my bias).
Photo credit: author
Among the many gems outlined in this marvelous book, one passage in particular stood out to me. The author refers to Neitzsche, who argued that:
“…our sense of self is typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives, and that the self is actually a secret agent working for them more than for us.”
We humans are herd animals. We respond to signals from those around us; the world around us. We see this behavior play out, for example, in how we respond to cultural trends. Here’s an example.
Remember when skinny jeans first emerged on the fashion scene?
I said, “Yuck. No damn way.” A few months later, I was… “Well, maybe…” Now I have three pair. For some reason, skinny jeans became a palatable fashion choice for me. So, what’s that all about?
Image source: Pixabay
We are influenced by those in our close personal networks. Our nature is to elevate and preserve the status we have (or aspire to have) within our social ‘herd’. This means that we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network. If necessary, we will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are highly influenced by the people around us, our environment (work, etc). This influence frames our behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. And even what we choose to wear.
When it comes to fashion, I have always been “fashionably late”; slow to respond to changing trends. I eventually get there (well, somewhere in the vicinity anyway). But once there (and I’m finding this more and more the older I get), it’s harder for me to pick up on new trends. I am comfortable in my habits and sensible footwear. Inconsistence-Avoidance Tendency (bias) is strong with this one – at least from a fashion-based perspective. Look, I’m not going to die on that skinny-jeans-fashion hill. But knowing me, it will take a while to move onto the next trend. And the ‘nudge’ will inevitably come from the people closest to me.
By the way, if someone is giving you grief about your skinny jeans or your side part, let it go. Every generation has its own (sometimes embarrassing) stereotype. The younger generation will always enjoy needling the older generation(s). The older generation will say things like “…back in the day…”
If you listen to only one podcast episode this year, let it be this one. My friend, Robyn Flipse – Registered Dietitian and Cultural Anthropologist – chats with Registered Dietitian and podcaster Melissa Joy Dobbins (on her program, Soundbites) about how we are influenced by food cultism.
A summary of Robyn’s ‘nuggets’ of ‘food’ wisdom…
We are the only animals that use symbolism in our lives. We apply that symbolism in many ways (for example, think currency). We also apply symbolism to food. We give food certain status and meaning in our societies and cultures.
Our human nature leaves us vulnerable to influence by “food gurus”; people that step in and play on our fears and anxieties that we naturally have as humans. We are susceptible to the dogmatic traps and ideologies that these gurus use and perpetuate. They use language with claims about food that can “detoxify” or “purify” us.
This, combined with our need to “belong” to tribes and social groups along with the influence of social media has left us vulnerable to food cultism and influencers. We are often willfully blind to the fact that there are usually a profit-based motives driving these food-related ideologies.
The one statement that Robyn made that really stuck out for me was this one:
What and how to eat: we humans need to be taught and shown.
Excerpt: “We have an information banquet at our finger tips. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives. Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain…But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day. Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.”
In short, not only do we need to monitor our information diet (“calories” in, “calories” out), we need help in understanding how best to consume information in a balanced way. Especially in this fast-paced, socially-media driven world that we live in. This requires some work – discernment and critical thinking. Some good guiding principles can be found through these sources:
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