Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In Conversation with... Cami Ryan

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A couple of decades ago, how you shopped for groceries wasn't nearly the talker it is today.

But with the organic-food sector growing by leaps and bounds -- and without pesticides or steroids -- what you put in your grocery cart and on your dinner table can be the source of derision or cheers, depending on your audience.

There's a bit of a snob factor to it, too. In the 1970s and '80s, it was hard to get too uppity about your choice of produce, but when you've got the organic wrapper around your bananas, all of a sudden you're a (supposed) high roller.

It's not dissimilar from how people used to judge each other's net worth a couple of decades ago before leasing automobiles became popular and gave drivers the chance to get behind the wheel of a vehicle they normally wouldn't be able to afford.

Back when it was buy or else, you knew the guy driving the BMW had some dough. That 22-year-old kid driving the same car today? Who knows?

Dr. Cami Ryan, a researcher at the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan, was in town to attend a food and farming event hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association at the University of Manitoba this week. She is an outspoken advocate for agriculture and science. She is a self-professed innovation-in-ag junkie and hosts a blog that tackles agriculture and food controversies. She stopped by the Winnipeg Free Press News Café earlier this week for an interview with reporter Geoff Kirbyson.

FP: Is organic food better than "normal" food?

Ryan: There is no evidence to suggest it's any more healthy or any more safe than any other food stuff. There's a whole halo effect that comes around our food. Food is a very personal thing, and people eat different foods for different reasons. It's part of our social fabric; we get together with family and we talk about food.

There are no governments or food or health-safety organizations in the world that will ever say (organic fruits and vegetables) are healthier or safer (than non-organic varieties).

FP: So, part of the organic boom is marketing?

Ryan: A lot of it is marketing. This is a $60-billion industry globally. We have a very safe food supply. (Thanks to trading relationships) Canada has access to 25 per cent to 30 per cent more fruits and vegetables than we did in the 1970s.

FP: There are many myths out there about food production. Why is that?

Ryan: This country was built on farming. Agriculture is still a major part of our economy -- it's eight per cent of our GDP -- but only two per cent of our population lives and works on the farm. There has been growing urbanization since the early 1920s. We have people who are geographically and generationally separated from the farm and they don't really know how our food is produced. Because those of us who work in agriculture or on the farm haven't talked about how we do our work (as much as we should have), there are gaps of information. And when that happens, people sometimes fill them with myths and misinformation.

FP: What are some of those myths?

Ryan: One of the big ones is that genetically engineered crops are somehow dangerous or unsafe. That's just not the case at all.

Food products produced through genetically engineered tools are the most studied, tested and well-regulated food items we have in the history of our food-production system.

FP: Is that why grapes are so much bigger than they used to be 20 years ago?

Ryan: We get better and better quality food types and fruits and vegetables because of plant breeding. Plant breeders go out and find a particular strawberry plant, for example, that happens to grow a beautifully sized strawberry and they propagate that one over and over. Sometimes they do it for flavour, too.

FP: What genetically engineered food do we grow in Canada?

Ryan: We grow four different genetically engineered crops -- canola, corn, soybean and sugar beets.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 D3

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