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.


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.


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.


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



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.




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