As a lawyer, I know a thing or two about people not liking me because of my profession. But imagine working at Monsanto…as a social scientist! Sounds like it might be a pretty nefarious position, but Cami Ryan actually has some very interesting insight into consumers and food trends! Oh, and she’s also just a super awesome person with an interesting story!
You’re a social scientist. First, what the heck does that mean? Second, did Monsanto hire you because they’re trying to do some type of experiments on society?
I am not trying to do experiments on society, I promise! I will clarify this further in a bit. But first…
The term ‘social scientist’ is weirdly abstract, so I understand it when people often look at me skeptically and ask “Wait…You’re a what?”. Social science is an umbrella term for several disciplines: anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, language studies, psychology, sociology, law (Amanda, you know this one!), and more. Basically, a social scientist studies the relationships between society (people) and their environment(s) (social, physical, cultural, political, etc). The term ‘social scientist’ has significance and a longstanding history in the academic setting but it is pretty much meaningless outside of the “Ivory Tower” (university) in the “real world”.
So, social scientists are not “new” but the role of “Social Science Lead” is new to Monsanto. Traditionally speaking, ag companies hire research scientists, agronomists, financiers, accountants, marketers, HR specialists, and others that have the kind of expertise that we would automatically link to being part of the way business is done. But things have changed drastically in the ag space over the past several years. People (consumers) have taken an active interest in where and how their food is produced. Most of us (98%) are geographically and generationally removed from the farm and food production operations. When rural and urban are divided, information gaps are bound to exist. And while we do live in an information-rich world, there is a lot of misinformation that currently drives public opinion about food production. As an industry – from lab to plate – we need to understand biases, behaviors, and perceptions so that we can better communicate how we do the science that is so important for food production. That’s where my expertise in understanding and exploring the relationship between science and society comes in.
So, in answer to your previous question, Amanda… Experiments on society? No. Just observations and insights with the goal to help my colleagues in industry identify pathways for learning new and better ways to connect and communicate with the public. More here.
You’ve been a social scientist for quite a few years now. What is the most interesting trend you’ve seen during that time, the most surprising trend, and the most worrisome trend?
To start, here’s a pre-emptive blurb. When I worked for the university, one of my areas of research interest was in understanding how new innovations and technologies get to people who need them most. More importantly, however, I was interested in how scientists, inventors, and innovators connect, interact, and work together in order to develop and mobilize technologies (in agriculture) that have both social and economic value. The human-to-human connection component has always been particularly fascinating for me.
That’s a good segue to this: We can all agree that the Internet and social media have fundamentally changed how we interact as humans; no matter who we are, what we do, or who we work for. So, in response to your first question, it has been the adoption of social media platforms as communication tools has been the most interesting trend that I’ve witnessed over the past several years.
Out of that interesting trend has been the expansion of a ‘citizen journalist’ movement (how’s that for a social science term?). The rise of the Internet has led to the surprising trend where anyone anywhere (with or without expertise or knowledge) can leap upon a soapbox and share opinion as fact. Mass media coupled with the influence of celebrity have created an environment where distorted information about food and the food production system rapidly circulates. Unfortunately, perception of expertise has become a bit of a moving target.
And this leads to the most worrisome trend: the lack of critical thinking in a world of mass information. We humans are emotionally-driven beings. Intuition drives our behaviors. We constantly seek out risk as a way to survive. This is how we have survived as a species. But in a world where misinformation is passed on as fact, we need to be continually be on guard and view everything with a critical eye before we buy into things let alone share it with friends or family on our social media feeds.
Lots of people try to attribute a wide variety of ills to Monsanto, yet you decided to relocate and work for the company. What influenced you to make that decision and how do people usually react when they find out where you work?
Monsanto has become a bit of a lightening rod in dialogues and exchanges among people about agriculture and modern farming. It is a company that is feared, vilified, and misunderstood; mostly due to a whole lot of misinformation circulated out there. So, how do people react when they find out that I work for Monsanto?
Reactions vary and reactions are context dependent. Most people haven’t even heard of the company so when it comes up casually in conversation with neighbors or people in my community, they are often just curious as to what the company does and my role. At times, responses are more visceral and negative. Online exchanges can be really nasty at times. Mostly because we humans find it a bit easier to be mean in the online space because we can hide behind an anonymous profile. There is less accountability in the online space because it lacks that in-real-life human-to-human connection. I was accused of being a Monsanto shill – and called all sorts of names – long before I ever worked for the company. And I’m not alone in this. Many that advocate for modern farming practices and understand the complexities of food production and food security often are.
Why did I decide to work for Monsanto? For all the reasons listed above and more. Monsanto’s reputational issues have been a driver for the company to adjust the traditional way its done business. Where once Monsanto focused on its customers, shareholders, and its employees, it is now trying to be part of the broader food conversation out in society; to find new ways to reach consumers in new ways. Moving to Missouri and settling in at Monsanto’s headquarters was just a natural next step for me as I, too, find new ways to apply my knowledge and expertise. My husband Blair and I are adventurers, first and foremost. We love exploring new spaces, trying out new things, and meeting new people. Our daughter and son are grown now (they are aged 29 and 23, respectively) so we are in a place in our lives where we have the freedom to take on new life challenges. Relocating is an adventure for us; the chance to be part of a new community, to make new friends, and to test the boundaries of our personal life experiences.
You’re originally from Canada, but now live in Missouri. Aside from U.S. farmers being better looking (just kidding…mostly), have there been any significant differences or similarities that have struck you about farmers in the two countries?
There are always differences between farmers, even between those that farm in the same county or municipality. I view farmers as entrepreneurs and individualists. Their work and aspirations are different, in many ways, from other vocations because their work is so deeply entwined with family and community. What they grow, how they grow it, the soil conditions, the weather, and economic conditions all factor into that differentiation. It is these very distinguishable features, however, are what inevitably binds them together. There is common language among farmers; an ease with which they can connect and understand one another. Not because they grow the same crops or drive the same model of combine. It is because they share a common understanding of the cultural aspects of the livelihood.
But there is one unifying factor that has been the impetus for pulling farmers together: misinformation about food production. Where once farmers stood (outstanding in their fields ☺) as autonomous stewards of the land, they are now coming together under the common goal to inform, engage and understand what drives consumer perceptions of how they live their lives and do their work. There is a certain madness and brilliance about social media. While it can be the vehicle for misinformation, it is also the mechanism for convergence; bringing people together to work collectively on a common problem. Farmers have connected in new and amazing ways to problem solve.
So, while geographic and political boundaries can sometimes divide people (in many ways), farming – today – is different. Farming is a global vocation: it involves trade, markets, access to information, and communication. Crises and issues management can drive unity, cultivate networks, and bring people together in new ways to solve real problems.
There will always be a special place in my heart for the farmer; any farmer, anywhere. I come from a farming family. I was raised in a farming community in Saskatchewan, Canada. And I am grateful that farmers are growing food for the rest of us in the world to eat.
You’ve written a couple books and authored or co-authored some serious scientific articles. You’re also active on your blog and social media. What made you decide to engage in the latter and why do you think it’s important?
Why did I decide to engage in social media? Well, for me it was a combination of time and opportunity. But it mostly began with a very deliberate ‘nudge’ from some social-media savvy students of mine. That was way back in 2007. I was teaching a fourth-year Research Methods class at the University of Calgary. My model for teaching has always included student-driven, highly interactive components. At the insistence of some very creative Communication students, I put together a Facebook profile. From there, we collectively shaped a Facebook-mediated space that proved to be highly interactive part of the course. We shared materials, resources, and ideas and conducted sample surveys. While were using social media as a tool in our class, we also became students of it; exploring it as a channel for social interaction. It truly was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve ever had.
That was how my love affair with social media started. From there on, it just grew to be a very practicable part of my work day. I yearned to break out of the Ivory Tower and connect with people downstream in the real world. Yes, I’ve written books, book chapters and journal articles. But let’s face it, very few people read this stuff. To connect with people that matter, I need to meet them in their space. I need to actively engage in the online community.
This whole dive into social media has been a personal social experiment of sorts for me. And we are all part of it. I can’t speak for others, but my voice, my brand, and how I use platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc has really evolved over the years. I’ve tested the waters. I’ve learned some key lessons and I’ve sometimes had to learn those lessons the hard way. My approach today is probably a bit softer than it was when I first started doing outreach. While I like to call out the misinformation and seek out and share appropriate balanced and objective sources when it is appropriate, I focus on the relationship first. In these spaces, the all-too-important human-to-human connection is often ignored.
The most important thing I have discovered is that engaging in social media spaces provides me with opportunities to challenge my own biases, to improve my critical thinking skills, and to find novel ways to look at issues that are important for society. Social media provides an interactive space that feeds my curiosity and interest in the world. But I follow a 60/40 rule. (Approximately) 60% of what I share reflects my personal interests (family, animals, art, community, volunteering) while only 40% is work-related. Why? That’s a sustainable social media model for me personally. And I am so much more than the job. I like to think that everyone is.
What question do people never ask that you wished they did ask, and what is your answer to that question?
I always encourage people to tell their farming or science stories, but I don’t often get the chance to share my own – because as I said above, “I am so much more than the job.”
What’s your story? Who is Cami Ryan, really?
I once heard someone say that how we are shaped as individuals is a product of the experiences we’ve had and the people that we’ve met. That makes sense to me. I was a farmer’s granddaughter, I was raised in a farming community, and I live in a part of the world where agriculture and food production are important contributors to the economy. I am a mom (a daughter and a son), a wife (to Blair, the cowboy-carpenter), an animal lover (three horses, two dogs). I once struggled through life as a single parent. I tragically lost a child. I’ve cared for and eventually lost loved ones to the ravages of cancer. My day goes so much better if I have a piece of charcoal or a paintbrush in hand. In fact, I identify as an artist first and as a social scientist by default. People might be surprised to know that I love my job because I find the art in what I do.
These things (and more) have shaped who I am today. How I got here is a function of (mostly) serendipity and a little bit of planning. And while my path is as individual as the next person’s, I find that the twists and turns in my own life story are conversation-starters and provide great avenues for finding common ground with all kinds of people.
About Cami: Cami Ryan is a self-defined nerd, a social media maven, and part-time myth-buster, and has worked in the area of agriculture for more than 20 years, for most of that time as a public sector researcher. Cami joined the Monsanto Company in 2014 where, as Social Sciences Lead with Regulatory Policy and Scientific Affairs, she is responsible for strengthening relationships with social, behavioral and political scientists. In this role, Cami leverages an expanding scientific network in North America and around the world to more closely examine and understand policy, regulations and acceptance of agricultural innovations.
Photo credit: Dainya Sapergia