The Trump administration, once again siding with large corporations at the expense of human health, recently opposed a United Nations resolution to promote breastfeeding.
The resolution, based on extensive research confirming the benefits of natural milk, appeared to be on its way to approval at the U.N. Health Assembly in Geneva when the U.S. delegation intervened. The Americans, signaling their intention to serve the interests of the infant-formula industry, demanded wording changes that would have severely weakened the statement.
The U.S. representatives objected to the resolution's call for all the world's governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding.” They also rejected a passage condemning breast-milk substitutes that harm babies. When the other nations balked, the Americans responded with threats. They warned Ecuador that it risked losing military assistance, as well as trade tariffs on products it exports to the United States. “We were shocked because we didn’t understand how such a small matter like breastfeeding could provoke such a dramatic response,” an Ecuador official said.
The New York Times reported that “more than a dozen participants from several countries” criticized the United States. Many of them asked not to be identified, in fear of retaliation. At least six countries rescinded their support of the resolution for the same reason.
“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” said Patti Rundall of Baby Milk Action, a British organization. “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young-child health.”
The standoff was resolved when Russia offered to sponsor the resolution. The U.S. delegation backed down, declining to threaten Vladimir Putin's government. A Russian delegate at the Geneva meeting told the Times: “We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world.”
The resolution language that finally won approval did not satisfy most of the U.S. demands. However, the delegates did agree to remove a statement opposing the “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children”; and add the term “evidence-based” to describe programs promoting breastfeeding.
The Department of Health and Human Services defended the American position on the issue. “The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” said an unidentified spokesman for the agency. “We recognize not all women are able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.”
Lobbyists representing the $70 billion-per-year baby-food industry were among the observers in Geneva. The companies, most of which are based in the United States and Europe, have been experiencing declining profits as more women make the choice to breastfeed. Euromonitor predicts that baby-food sales will increase only 4 percent this year, with residents of poor countries compromising most of the purchases.
The U.S. resistance to advancing the cause of breastfeeding is a departure from the Obama administration's policy, which reflected the World Health Organization's long-time advocacy of natural milk. Trump's delegates to the U.N. reportedly have threatened to reduce funding to the WHO. No other country provides more money than the United States' $845 million annual payment to the group.
The controversy is one more case of the Republican administration advancing corporate interests. Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, which involved voluntary limits on carbon emissions; and the Environmental Protection Agency has eliminated many regulations, benefitting polluters at the expense of people's health.
In negotiations regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States fought against requiring warning labels on soda and other junk food. The Americans again rejected labels on sugary drinks during talks about the obesity crisis at the Geneva conference.
“It’s making everyone very nervous, because if you can’t agree on health multilateralism, what kind of multilateralism can you agree on?” asked Ilona Kickbusch, director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
Elisabeth Sterken, director of the Infant Feeding Action Coalition in Canada, pointed out that researchers have consistently found that breast milk is preferable to substitutes due to the antibodies and hormones it provides.
About 800,000 fewer children would die worldwide each year if everyone breast-fed their children, according to a study The Lancet published in 2016. The researchers estimated that universal breastfeeding also would save about $300 billion annually in health-care costs.