It used to be that agriculture’s biggest concern was overzealous regulators on the local, state, and federal level. But with the advent of social media and new technologies, the creation of fear-based food marketing has been on the rise. Unfortunately, the target of that marketing is usually young moms. Of course, that doesn’t mean that farmers can disregard the political aspect of our industry either. Julie Gunlock is uniquely qualified to talk about both issues – politics and motherhood. With extensive experience in politics and having 3 kids, I was excited to talk to Julie about how it all relates.
Agriculture is a pretty heavily regulated industry, which means farmers have to be particularly tuned in to what our elected officials are doing. But those opposed to modern farm production methods are also tuned in and speaking loudly. Having worked in legislative offices, what is the best way for farmers to reach out to their elected officials and actually be heard?
I’m not sure people understand that congressman and senators actually do care what their constituents have to say. There’s a bit of cynicism about elected officials these days and a widely held belief that elected representatives don’t care what the people want. That might be true for some but not all. For instance, I worked for Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) for several years in the 1990s and each and every day–sometimes several times a day–the Senator would walk down to the front office and speak to the receptionists about the calls his office was getting. The receptionists were required to log every call–the reason for the call and the name and contact information for the caller. The Senator was obsessive about collecting that information. He wanted to know how people felt–at home, in his state. He wanted to know how they felt about a particular issue. That resonated with me. It showed me that the simple act of calling your senator’s office can really have an impact on their vote. I worked for several members after Senator DeWine and each member cared deeply about the thoughts and wishes of the electorate. Of course lobbyists came to the office each day and large organizations who had an ax to grind. But it was those individual calls that seemed to matter most to my bosses.
You’ve done a lot of work regarding the so-called “culture of alarmism,” which exposes the strategy some groups use to scare the general public about everything, including food! What made you initially take notice of these tactics, especially about food and farming, and how did that develop into the work you’re doing now?
Having my first child really opened my eyes up to the fear-based marketing tactics utilized by activist organizations. They’re very smart–using moms and mom bloggers to promote the idea that grocery stores are filled with toxic food and that farmers are irresponsible land and animal abusers. It worked on me at first–I became completely paranoid about food and wellness issues and I sort of fell into conspiratorial thinking where I convinced myself that Big Food and Big Ag were somehow to blame for all the world’s problems. But as I educated myself more on these issues (read more about why farmers do what they do–crating, antibiotic use, caging vs. free ranging chickens, CAFOs use, spraying pesticides, use GMO seed) I started to see the pattern emerge. The specific issue didn’t matter, the alarmism was the same. The message was clear: You and your kids will be harmed by modern life–be it modern farming, food distribution and production, manufacturing, medicine, etc. Modernity and technology were the enemies and moms and kids were the victims. This message has penetrated nearly every area of our culture. Moms are fed a constant diet of danger, danger, danger. This creates needless worry and stress and makes parenting harder and less enjoyable.
You previously worked as a staff member for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and on the House Homeland Security Committee. What role do you think agriculture plays on the international stage?
I think food and agriculture policy is critical to national security, particularly when it comes to American trade policy. Free and vigorous trade with other nations is the best form of international humanitarian aid the United States can provide and it’s one of the best anti-terror measures. By providing a marketplace, the US can help developing nations create and grow industries that will generate jobs and a higher standard of living. Consider Pakistan–an important partner on the war on terror and a major producer of textiles. That industry’s’ growth is critical to Pakistan’s continued development yet US imposed import quotas and tariffs block Pakistan’s access to our marketplace. The same is true for some food imports. From a national security standpoint, the west can and should do more to encourage global commerce, especially with developing nations.
In addition to all of the political work and writing that you do, you’re also a boy mom of three! Unfortunately, so many marketers target young moms with fear-mongering messages. What advice do you have for moms that want to know what’s best for their kids, but are getting confused about all the conflicting information available?
The best advice I have for new moms is DO NOT read mommy blogs or activist websites to get information about food and nutrition. There’s just too much garbage information out there. It’s overwhelming. The other advice I would give is to check your sources! Have questions about vaccines? Ask a doctor. Have questions about food and how it’s grown? Ask a farmer or someone who works in the agriculture field (like you!). Have questions about parenting? Ask your mom! Online “experts” might mean well but they often cause confusion and fear and they encourage many moms to stop trusting their own instincts. The phrase “mom knows best” might seem cliche but it’s true. Moms need to trust their own instincts, choose good sources for health information, and tune out all the other nonsense.
What question do people never ask that you wished they did ask, and what is your answer to that question?
What’s your secret to looking so young and beautiful? HA! I’m kidding. I sometimes wish people would simply ask for sources. I hear people say the most bizarre things about food and agriculture and when I ask for their sources they often don’t have one or they dismiss my questions with “I saw it on TV!” That’s not a source! There seems to be a lot of confusion out there about food and agriculture yet people are less inclined these days to seek out good information. When I argue a point–for instance, when I tell moms that there’s zero nutritional difference between organic and conventionally grown food, I am always able to back up my claim with scientific sources (in this case, I point to the Stanford study). Sadly, rarely am I asked for sources. People listen and nod and are polite but they don’t seem to demand sourcing as they should. I hope this changes.