The Curious Politics of Milk: Part Three
Anti-formula activists and development officials often claim that millions of infants die every year because they are not breastfed (this is probably based on the fact that millions of infants die of diarrhea from contaminated water every year--which they could ingest in a number of ways.) Even if a woman is privileged enough to have access to safe water, breastfeeding gives infants "the best start," write Baumslag and co-author Dia L. Michels.
Plus, UNICEF claims, breastmilk is "free" and "always available." This is debatable, especially for poorer women in the global economy. Producing human milk requires extra food--about 500 calories more a day. It requires time--anywhere from two to eight hours a day when babies are put to breast. And unfortunately it is not always available for babies when their mothers must work outside their homes, in factories and other people's homes.
This proselytizing about breastfeeding is primarily an intervention in formula manufacturers' relentless marketing of their factory-produced powders. In 1977, a coalition of 35 groups led by Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT), led a 10-country boycott of Nestlé's aggressive marketing of infant formula, which as Time magazine wrote in 1984 "contributed to poor health in less-developed nations by encouraging mothers to give up breast feeding." In 1981, the World Health Organization and UNICEF drafted a code on the international marketing of breast-milk substitutes; Nestle signed on, although the United States did not until 1994. But activists found that the manufacturers were not abiding by WHO's ethical code, which prohibits advertising and free samples, and mandates labeling heralding the superiority of breastmilk. In 1988, a new boycott against Nestle and other infant-formula manufacturers (whose sales were estimated at $8 billion worldwide in 1998 ) was launched by Action for Corporate Accountability and the International Baby Food Action Network (a group of NGO leaders that won the 1998 Right Livelihood Award). According to Action, these manufacturers' deceptive marketing techniques contributed to the deaths of "more than 1 million infants worldwide each year by undermining natural breast-feeding."
It is all well and good to attempt to crimp the profit margins of multinational companies, particularly when these companies are interfering in the crucial first 6 months of an infant's life (some manufacturers have even gone so far as to lobby against bills that would allow mothers to room-in with their breastfeeding infants in maternity wards) . Development agencies' claim that these companies were actually killing babies, however, rested on one crucial argument: that women living in poverty would be convinced to forego breastfeeding their infants by formula-advertising and free samples (or that their milk would dry up while using free formula from the hospital) and later on, would dilute the formula with contaminated water. Yet, around the world, researchers have found that women have fed their infants a combination of their own milk, animal's milk when it was available, and other local foods and drinks, particularly sweetened water, for centuries. "The effort to circumvent breastfeeding, to shrug off the mammalian mantle, long predates Nestle Corp., Ross Laboratories, and the formulas they hawk," writes journalist Natalie Angier in her 1999 book, Woman: An Intimate Geography. Any of these supplementary foods could, especially in poorer regions, be contaminated. In other words, formula makers didn't invent supplementary feedings, nor did they introduce water into babies' diets. (Most babies, in any case, require foods other than milk to keep growing after 6 months of age.) The risks associated with new foods for infants exist in poor conditions whether formula is added into the equation or not. The real threat, of course, is poverty itself.
Indeed, most women living in poor conditions cannot afford to buy formula for their infants. In Uganda, the average annual cost of formula for one baby is more than the average annual income of a village family; in Peru, the cost exceeds the household income of over half of the country's population. The effort to, as Baumslag and Michels put it, "put an end to free and low-cost supplies of infant formula," while done in the name of poor traditional women, is really aimed at the elite women who could afford formula to begin with and the denizens of the urban, industrial global factory--dislocated women under increasingly larger burdens. If the water these women have access to is contaminated, it is possible that their use of formula would endanger their infants--if formula were the only venue in which women would give their infants water in the first place. Yet advocating fewer options for these women, without revolutionary changes in the way they must work and help their families survive, seems cruelly shortsighted. Finally, the elite women who can afford formula have better chances of also having the decent health care, support, and clean water that makes formula-feeding safe for babies.
In the end, the various pieties about breastfeeding and how women should mother their infants suffer from the same problem of viewing the baby in isolation and ignoring the mother's needs. UNICEF and the WHO urge poor women in the developing world to breastfeed for 2 years. Never mind that forced globalization and industrialization is shattering indigenous cultures and economies in service of the global factory, with especially dire burdens placed on women in the developing world. Development agencies and anti-formula activists have solutions for the babies and the babies only. On the other hand, rich women in the developed world are meant to keep their breasts as men's sexual playthings. We may acceptably use them to feed babies, but only for a year or less--after that time our breasts are meant to serve men's sexual needs and therefore anything we do with them must be about sex (or about serving our own needs: wrong wrong wrong!)
These curious politics of milk were brought into sharp relief on a recent visit to a local dairy barn. My four-year-old was weaned a few years ago, and he wanted to see the creatures that made his "big kid milk," that is, cow's milk. The sight of hundreds of silently munching cows with their huge, swollen, vein-crossed udders shut him up fast. So that was where his milk came from, as opposed to his little brother's milk, which came from me. It must have been unnerving. Quietly, we left the barn. Outside in the cold wind we spied a skinny little calf, alone and chained to a gate. So close and yet so far.
Sonia Shah Editor/Writer Editor, DRAGON LADIES: ASIAN AMERICAN FEMINISTS BREATHE FIRE (1997) firstname.lastname@example.org