Infant formula monopolies: harming people and the planet

Boycott Nestle

Powerful baby formula milk companies, including Nestlé, Danone and Kraft Heinz, have long harmed the health of babies and women around the world. A paper published in the British Medical Journal (October 2019), ‘Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative’, shows the extent to which formula milk also damages the health of the planet. Around the world, formula use growth is staggering – and deadly. To view this as a women’s issue is to side with the corporations and to ignore the devastation capitalism will wreak in the pursuit of profit.

‘Formula milk contributes to environmental degradation and climate change’

Most formula is made from powdered cows’ milk, requiring 4,700 litres of water per kg of powder to produce, and releasing methane, a major greenhouse gas. Its nutritional inadequacy requires additions of, for example, palm and fish oil. Packaging adds to landfill. Transportation is an environmental cost, with just 40-50 global production sites. Formula must be heated correctly – in the UK, this uses the equivalent energy of charging 200 million smart phones per year.

Breastfeeding, meanwhile, uses few resources and has no environmental impact. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and for two years and beyond alongside complementary foods. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months saves an estimated 95-153kg CO2 equivalent per baby compared with formula feeding. If all babies in the UK were breastfed for six months the carbon emissions saving would be equivalent to taking 50,000 to 77,500 cars off the road for a year.

Aggressive advertising and company profits

Instead the formula industry is growing, predicted to be worth $98 billion by 2025. It is one of the fastest growing packaged foods markets, growing at eight times the pace of the global population. Kasper Jakobsen, former Chief Executive of formula giant Mead Johnson said: ‘we have to wait for babies to be born that we can capture. That can then go through our acquisition, retention, and extension model.’ Billions are spent on formula advertising which discourages breastfeeding and perpetuates the myth of formula’s equivalency. The six main companies alone spend over £36 for every baby born. Nestlé face an international boycott because they have dressed salespeople as nurses, lavished gifts on health professionals, distributed free samples in hospitals and influenced policy makers. The WHO’s ‘International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes’ attempts to reign in such tactics. However, national responses are often toothless. For example, it is against the code to promote breastmilk substitutes, bottles or teats for babies. To get around this, entirely unnecessary, worthless, expensive and environmentally damaging ‘follow-on’ milks were created so they are in theory not competing directly with breastfeeding. Surveys show that people think formula milk is advertised and recognise the main brands.

That breastfeeding saves lives globally and improves health outcomes for women and babies is well understood, but breastfeeding support relies on struggling health systems and interest groups. Decisions about feeding are undoubtedly personal and emotive but the idea of a simple ‘choice’ is false. As campaigner and nutritionist Gabrielle Palmer states, ‘the development of artificial baby milk has been a marketing success story, not least in the skill with which the competing product has been destroyed.

Austerity

In Britain, cuts are adding to this destruction. Britain has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and the highest use of formula per capita. Just 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed at six months, yet more than 85% of pregnant women want to breastfeed and 8 out of 10 stop breastfeeding before they want to. Something is going very wrong in the process, for women, babies and the environment.

Cuts to children’s centres have seen a 20% fall in the number of children able to use the services in four years, with the poorest areas most affected. Breastfeeding and children’s centre support both reduce illness and hospitalisation – short-term cuts will simply cost the NHS, and families, later. Health visitor numbers have dropped by 31.8% since 2015. Formula is expensive. Benefit cuts and workplace precarity see families struggling to cover costs, dangerously watering down formula and cutting feeds. Formula should be made available free on the NHS for those who need it, alongside breastfeeding rights at work, childcare and milk donation banks – all currently almost non-existent. Whilst formula is necessary in some circumstances, the current system’s primary goal is not to cater for these.

A global killer

In Britain, formula is riskier than breastfeeding but sanitation and healthcare reduce its harmful impact. Globally, the formula companies’ drive for profit is deadly. The lives of over 820,000 children could be saved every year with optimal breastfeeding – it is the single most effective intervention for the prevention of deaths of children under five. Babies who are not breastfed under six months are seven times more likely to die from diarrhoea, and five times more likely to die from pneumonia, the two biggest infectious killers of children. Women who do not breastfeed are at increased risk of infection, bleeding after birth and closer pregnancies. Companies have knowingly promoted their products in areas where the lack of clean water makes it impossible to feed safely, and with instructions in the wrong language. So successful is the manufactured need that there is a thriving black market of out-of-date powder. People living in poverty go without food to save money to pay for a substance that is more likely to harm or kill their baby, rather than free and safe breastmilk.

Years of aggressive domination by the formula industry have made this so. Imperialism brought with it exploitation, capitalist labour discipline and institutional control, separating mothers and babies and introducing rigid, artificial feeding schedules around the world. Natural disasters, periods of unrest and the IMF’s ‘structural adjustments’ and resulting loss of healthcare provision have been exploited by the companies to expand their markets. For example, after Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in 2013 the number of infants formula fed drastically increased, leading to a public health campaign to oppose the formula aid ‘donations’ and milk adverts. As climate events increase, the polluting companies market their brands when it is most dangerous to do so – breastfeeding does not require sterile equipment or additional clean water and so is lifesaving on a flooding and burning planet.

Rachel Francis