Hundreds of World Health Organization (WHO) delegates convened in Geneva in May 2018 to pass an updated resolution for the “promotion and support” of breastfeeding. An unexpected controversy flared when American officials objected; ostensibly, they thought that the proposed wording promoted breastfeeding too exclusively and neglected vital supplemental options. Lobbying by dairy-industry and formula-company groups – invited to speak at a stakeholders’ meeting two-weeks ahead of the summit – caused much speculation among news commentators about the impartiality of this opinion.
The resolution did go through, courtesy of none other than Russia, but still leaves many questions unanswered: Who do we trust to feed ourselves and our children? How do we address the legitimate needs for infant formula, for mothers who don’t want or are unable to breastfeed, in disaster scenarios, or for premature babies, without harshly judging those who require such support?
David Suzuki, a Canadian academic, scientist and environmental activist, wrote in his 1995 essay collection Time to Change that, “like a baby nursing at a mother’s breast, birth is an undeniable affirmation of our rootedness in nature” (101). However, most of the actual milk that people (including many babies) drink today comes not from our mothers but from cows. This sea of cows’ milk, much of it purchased far from its origins, submerges an important fact: for most of history the lack of technology to sterilize, preserve and bottle cows’ milk meant that most women who suffered “lactation-failure” relied on wet nurses to feed their babies. Attitudes toward wet-nurses vacillated over the centuries in Europe and America, with the low point possibly the subjugation of impoverished immigrant and enslaved black women to the hungers of rich white babies. However, a potent alternative lurked within the teats of those ever-patient, ever-ignorant cows.
Condensed milk, developed in 1856, briefly preceded the debut of the world’s first infant formula in 1867. Nestle, the inventor of this product, benefited from increasingly sophisticated chemical analyses of the nutritional differences between human and animal milks, allowing manufacturers to make cows’ milk mimic that of humans. Companies promoted formula as the “perfect” food for babies, rolling out multimedia advertising campaigns that included gift bags to new moms in maternity wards and aggressive marketing to pediatricians. With the U.S. and Europe reaching market saturation by the 1980s, businesses – including dominant player Nestle – turned toward new audiences in Asia, Africa and South America. Many families in developing nations purchased formula, believing it surpassed breast milk in quality, but could only afford the expense by diluting it, which had the opposite effect: many babies died from malnutrition, diarrhea and pneumonia due to secondary infections from contaminated water. The alarm among public health officials at this wave of increased infant mortality escalated until the WHO passed its (nonbinding) code restricting corporate marketing of infant formula on May 21, 1981, with a vote of 118 to 1. The United States submitted the sole negative vote. This was the resolution under discussion again this year.
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