Q&A Series: Agvocate Dr. Cami Ryan (Part 1)

Many readers of this blog are likely familiar with Dr. Cami Ryan, an outspoken advocate for farmers and agricultural innovation, especially biotechnology. For those who don’t know her, be sure to check out her blog and @DocCamiRyan on Twitter – her experience in agriculture and expert communications skills make her well worth following!

Dr. Ryan grew up surrounded by agriculture in the Canadian prairies and earned her Ph.D. & Bachelor in Commerce at the University of Saskatchewan. She passionately writes about agriculture, exploring the relationship between consumers and the food they eat, and thus, is the perfect person to help us kick off a new Q&A series for our blog!

OSF: What experience made you fall in love with agriculture for the first time?

Dr. Ryan:  I can’t remember a time when agriculture wasn’t part of my life in some small way. My grandfather immigrated to Canada at the turn of the 20th century and homesteaded in Saskatchewan. My uncles took over the farm and now my cousins and cousins’ kids run the operations there. Although I wasn’t directly in the farming operations, it was a huge part of my upbringing.

I really grew up a ‘townie.’ But, living in small town Saskatchewan means that you are still intimately attached to agriculture. It’s all around you. It’s a place in the world where farmers head down to the local bakery for coffee to chat about equipment, pest management and the weather. Small town Saskatchewan is where 2/3 of the desks at school are empty during seeding and harvest. Dr. Cami Ryan - credit: Tanya Ryan

What do you think are the most important benefits biotechnology has to offer when it comes to food production and consumption?

I am a history junkie. And I have read a lot about the history of agriculture here in North America. Most people don’t remember the Depression or the dust bowl that was the result of more aggressive farming strategies that were common at the turn of the 20th century. Those early practices did such a huge disservice to our soil quality. Even as late as the 1980s, we experienced ‘dust bowls’. 

However, the introduction of no-till and conservation-till practices changed that. These are strategies designed to prevent erosion and to preserve soil moisture and quality. Adoption of these practices has represented a leap forward in environmental sustainability and stewardship in how we farm.

What was really terrific about the genetically engineered herbicide tolerant crop varieties that were introduced to the market starting in the mid 1990s was that they enabled farmers to more actively adopt no-till and conservation-till practices. Anything that is good for the environment is good in my books. There is so much promise for next generation biotechnology crops; ones with nutritional benefits (which consumers will appreciate) and ones that will be more fertilizer- and water-use efficient. 

You’re very active on social media; what advice would you give potential agvocates who want to start getting involved in the online discussions?

There is no doubt that social media has fundamentally changed the way people connect and relate to one another. More than 72% of North American adults carry some form of mobile device around 24/7. We are wholly ‘tapped in’ to things like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn. But there are two sides to this interactive new media. On one hand, we can connect to our networks and find information almost immediately.

On the other hand, we are also exposed to massive amounts of misinformation. Sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction, especially when it comes to information about food and agriculture production. There are lots of myths out there. So, those of us that work in agriculture are encouraged to engage in dialogues in order to set the record straight on some of this misinformation.

Food is very personal and food production can be highly political. Conversations about food and agriculture can get emotionally heated.  And that can be really tough for an agriculture or science advocate. In my experience, it has always been best to approach any discussion as a relationship building exercise. Think of it more as a conversation, than a conversion. You are never going to win over the hearts and minds of everyone. The worst case scenario is that you walk away (respectfully ‘agreeing to disagree’) with another contact and maybe even a new online friend.

The important thing is to just get out there and talk. Talk about your family, your farm and your farming practices. Share your story. And do so authentically. Find your voice and claim your online space in a way that makes sense for you. That may be by blogging, tweeting or even just by posting photos on Instagram. At the end of the day, it is the interplay of all of our voices together that will be the real catalyst for change over time.

I know it’s tough to choose, but if you had to pick just one of your favorite online resource to recommend to a consumer who wanted to learn more about ag-biotech, which would it be?

Biology Fortified is one of my favorites. It is a non-profit independent, and the experts that contribute to the blog are knowledgeable and have great ways of communicating complex scientific information in an easy-to-understand manner.  

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Q&A, which will be posted next week. We’ll be asking Dr. Ryan why the anti-GMO myths are so pervasive despite the supportive evidence, how best to further the public conversation, and about ag-biotech’s future!

Apr. 9 Update: Part 2 has now been posted right here.

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