Why is a social scientist working at Monsanto?

I am often asked, “Why does a social scientist work for Monsanto?” That’s a good question. An even better question – and one I am asked even more often – is…

A social scientist is interested in relationships; relationships between people and relationships between people and the social environment (think ‘life’, ‘work’, ‘family’, etc). The social sciences cover a wide range of disciplines that including things like anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, language studies, psychology, and sociology. (Check out my background here)

Why the social sciences matter in today’s complex food environment

It’s no secret that there have been hits and misses in Monsanto’s communications history. For the longest time, Monsanto focused its communication efforts on its customers – the farmers, in addition to its shareholders and its employees. During the past several years however, people – consumers – started having new and often heated conversations about food and food production. There is a great deal of misinformation circulating out there about modern agriculture and, more often than not, Monsanto is often the ‘lightening rod’ in some very emotionally charged dialogues.

We realized that our greatest challenge may not be in advancing the technology; rather, in helping people understand the importance of that technology. We needed to engage in these conversations.  Traditional communication models – ones that Monsanto relied on for so many years – just don’t work in our information-rich, social-media-driven world. We need to reach consumers in new and unexpected ways; we need to meet people where they are, virtually and in real life.

What does a social scientist – like me – contribute to a company like Monsanto?

My job at Monsanto is to help navigate the murky space of misinformation; to cultivate understanding as to what drives people’s perceptions and beliefs about food and food production. This means digging into the research on public perceptions, behavioral economics, human behavior, sociology of agriculture and food production and other related fields. I am also a resource for my colleagues here at Monsanto to help find new and better ways to reach out to and engage people in conversations that are meaningful.

Humans make decisions or form conclusions in interesting ways. What we think we are talking about isn’t always what we are talking about. Confused? Me too. For example, we might think that we know all about topic “A”, while not even knowing anything about the related and important items of “B” or “C”. Even still, we move on to form conclusions at point “D” – because “D” confirms our biases and “D” reflects the shared understandings of our close, personal networks. Suddenly, though, the dialogue takes a turn! It has moved way, way past “E” and, sadly, “E” may be where the important conversations should take place!

It’s pretty easy to get distracted by the low-hanging fruit of misinformation and our confirmation biases. We all do it. But food production and food security is about more than just GMOs (think ‘food waste and storage’, ‘climate change’, ‘distribution’, etc). We need to work past our biases if we are to resolve some of our most pressing food security problems.We are all consumers. We need to connect with one another in meaningful ways and, more importantly, we at Monsanto need to reach out and collaborate with multiple stakeholders. Science just isn’t enough. If we lead with the science, we quickly lose the ‘social’ so it’s hard for people to relate to us and for us to build trust. We need to broaden our conversations to include our stories; the “why” behind our science. We need to identify what’s missing in our conversations about food and food security because back-and-forth debates that polarize don’t really serve the public good.

In our society, food is so much more than sustenance. I once heard food referred to as a “universe.” There’s no doubt that food is an important part of the social fabric for all societies. It is the gathering place where we connect as human beings and where we share stories. Understanding the complex, fascinating, colorful, ever-changing “food universe” is an important part of my work as a social scientist at Monsanto.

This is why I work for Monsanto and this is why I love my job.

(For more insights into me, my work, check out my virtual chat with Katie Pinke

[this was originally posted on LinkedIn]

Food fads and grey matters

brain-storyIn his article “The Logical Failures of Food Fads” (published in Slate in April 2015), Alan Levinovitz raises an important point that often gets lost in our science communication pursuits:

“Spotting the fatal flaws requires no scientific knowledge whatsoever, just a rudimentary grasp of rhetoric and logic…”

Many of us in the science communication space have realized that traditional, patriarchal, deficit model-driven strategies often fail because of the ‘backfire effect’. Maria Popova (Brainpickings) quotes David McRaney about this phenomenon:

“Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them.”

Our lesson here? While communicating the value of science is very important (and, truly, we shouldn’t lose sight of that), how we actually carry it out matters even more.  Perhaps the end goal here is less about changing hearts and minds and more about encouraging critical thought.


Sketching out some cognitive maps through some of those more messy food myths may sometimes be the best way to help people discern between facts and fiction. The human brain is a magical, messy place. If our outreach efforts don’t include ways to help people navigate their grey matter, we will lose folks to those that tell the best, most provocative stories.

And a bit of self-reflection on our part – constantly challenging our own biases as science communicators – doesn’t hurt either.


Related: Here is a link to one of my go-to pieces, Cook and Lewandowsky’s “Debunking Handbook” (6 pages, a quick read). One of the most important points that the authors make here is that you can’t debunk a myth without providing some kind of narrative to replace that myth.

What happens when a friend asks you this?… #GMOs @AJStein_de

This is what happened when Alexander J. Stein, an economist from the EU with research interests in ag and food security, was asked this:

bullet-Leaf“Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…”

To which he responded:

bullet-Leaf“Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…”

Alexander Stein provides your one-stop shop for everything GMOs and safety and public perceptions … And if all that isn’t enough, check out these resources that I have compiled (some overlap with AS’s)

As you can tell, GMOs is not a topic that you can throw down in a one-hour google search or by surfing through your social media feed. Thanks AS for Bringing Light into the Discussion about GMOsGreat blog post!



FOIA. It’s the New Four-Letter Word.

bullet-LeafSeveral 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.



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.

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.leaf2

radically transparent5

 “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

― Dara Ó Briain



Related articles:

Brown, Kristen V. (2016). “How internet trolls silenced a scientist…and why we need to rethink our entire approach to harassment online.” Fusion. February 24th.

Brown, Tracy. (2016). “It’s silly to assume all research funded by corporations is bent.” The Guardian.

Genetic Expert News Service. (2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“. The GRIST. September 9.

Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.

Ropeik, David. (2015). “What’s More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?” Big Think.

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2016). “Who Should Fund University Research?” BioBeef Blog.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Select References:

BioChica. (2015). “The funding of science: public & private sector collaborations.” FrankenFoodFacts.

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). “Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development”. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Academics Review.

GeneticsExperts.org (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”.

Giddings, V., R. D. Atkinson, and J.J. Wu. (2016). “Suppressing Growth: How GMO Opposition Hurts Developing Nations.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. February.

International Development Research Centre. (2014). “New public-prviate partnerships address global food security.” http://www.idrc.ca/en/regions/global/pages/ResultDetails.Aspx?ResultID=133

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation DeficitReport/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three-part series beginning with “Who funds my weed science program?”, “I am biased and so are you”, and “On transparency, intimidation, and being called as shill”. Weed Control Freaks. August.

Novella, Steven. (2015). “FOIA Requests to Biotech Scientists.” NeurologicaBlog. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/foia-requests-to-biotech-scientists/

Orac. (2016). “Transparency” should not equal a license to harass scientists. Respectful Insolence. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/01/11/transparency-should-not-mean-a-license-to-harass-scientists/

Spielman, D.J. F. Hartwich, and K. von Grebmer. (?) “Public-private Partnerships and Developing-country Agriculture: Evidence from the International Agricultural Research System.” Future Agricultures. http://www.future-agricultures.org/farmerfirst/files/T2a_Spielman.pdf

The Library of Congress. (2016). “Morill Acts.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Morrill.html


Ready, set, shame!

Under the Influence (CBC) has been a favorite program of mine for some time. Terry O’Reilly, the host, explores the evolution of marketing from the 20th century into the 21st century…it’s really fascinating stuff. I always enjoy O’Reilly’s honey-smooth vocal intonations as he creatively grounds his observations in real-world scenarios. In this podcast from 2013 called Shame: the secret tool of modern marketing, Terry “…peels back the layers of shame in our modern world.”

To understand how marketing works today, O-Reilly says “we first need to go back in time”. Unlike today, in the early to mid 1800s we didn’t really care a great deal about how we smelled or what color our teeth were. Through an effective advertising strategy of “social shaming”, companies have been able to position their products and gain market share for the past 150 years. This approach is characterized through messages like: “Control that body odor, people are talking about you!” or “Halitosis is making you a social pariah” or “if you have whiter teeth you will attract the right partner”.

What do bad breath, yellow teeth, and body odor have to do with this blog post? Nothing really. But this whole notion of “social shaming” certainly does. By explicitly promoting the benefits (i.e. whiter teeth) of a given product, companies are implicitly communicating negative social impacts by not using the product.

Setting the “shaming” scene

CR-ShockLast fall, I attended a local community event in rural Alberta where there were a number of young moms in the room, balancing cherubic babies on their hips.  I eavesdropped in on an exchange that went something like this:

Mom #1 says proudly: “Jacob just moved up from rice cereal to baby food.”

Mom #2: “Oh, what are you feeding him?”

Mom #1: “Oh, I picked up [Name Brand] baby food at [Store Name]. We are trying that for now. We bought a selection of different vegetables and fruits to see how he likes them.”

Mom #3: “Well, I certainly hope that it’s organic!”

Mom #1: “Um… I don’t know. Well, I don’t think so…I…”

Mom #2: “I only feed Kaelynn organic baby food. In fact, I special order it in from [Specialty Baby Food Company].”

Mom #3: “I’ve heard about that! I feed my baby natural baby food with no preservatives that I get from [Local High-Priced “Natural” Grocery Store].

Mom #1: “But isn’t that expensive?”

Mom #2: “Yes, it is more money than the supermarket-bought brands but my Kaelyn is worth it.”

Mom #3: “…After all, Mom #1, the safety and health of our babies is important.”

*awkward silence*

Mom #1 looks awkwardly at her feet and shifts healthy, cherubic Jacob to the other hip.

Mom #2 and Mom #3 mentally un-invite Mom #1 from the next play date.



We humans are social animals

As Matthew Lieberman says, we are “wired to connect” (2013). Our nature is to elevate and preserve status we have within the social ‘herd’. To do so, we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, humans 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. Our social environment has changed a great deal over the years where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have grown into central components of our daily human-to-human interactions:

“…social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant…A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure.”

– Jason Manning, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University –

Tapping into our base fears

Because we are pack animals, we rely on our personal networks for affirmation and survival. If socially ostracized, our visceral response is that our ‘survival’ is in jeopardy.  Advertisers are well-aware of these fears. It is not only companies that employ these kinds of tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products. The ‘social shaming’ strategy is effectively used by different actors in various parts of our social world to influence behavior and public opinion. Via social media, we can easily lob shame-bombs at anyone we disagree with while ducking real accountability for those actions (often shielded behind anonymous profiles).

And sadly, as the above story illustrates, we often use these same shaming tactics on our own friends, family, and community members.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:


The Dose Makes the Poison: 2016 edition

Today is a good day to (re)launch my personal blog – now titled “Camistry” – showcasing its new, snappy design. Thanks to my very talented cousin, Shawn, for his creative input and for “re-imagining” my online look.

I also took the opportunity to update the “Dose Makes the Poison” table. Since I originally posted it exactly two years ago, it has gotten tens of thousands of hits.

Here is that table. The content is the same, but it now comes with a bit of an artistic facelift. 🙂

toxicity table 2017

This table is also available in pdf format (better resolution). Send me a note if you would like me to send you the file via email.