No single solution nor single source of the problem

There’s a recent TED Talk soundbite that goes like this:

“…In a world as complex and interconnected as the one we live in, the idea that one person has the answer is ludicrous. It’s not only ineffective, it’s dangerous because it leads us to believe that it’s been solved by that hero, and we have no role. We don’t need heroes. We need radical interdependence, which is just another way of saying we need each other.” 

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It’s a similar lesson Kimberly Seals Allers spoke to during a Milkshake Mondays Facebook Live session where she comments on the New York Times piece Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risks, Affecting Black Mothers Most and a laboratory creation intended to replicate human milk which just raised $3.5 million from Bill Gates’ investment firm.

In reference to the despicable maternal child health outcomes for birthing and lactating Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), Seals Allers implores us to stop having “this very individualized conversation about what is happening to Black women.”

“There is so much involved,” she says. “There is no single solution, and there never was a single source of the problem.” 

The ideas of interconnectedness and multi-dimensional challenges apply perfectly to this year’s World Breastfeeding Week’s (WBW) theme Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet. Environmental and human health are intricately intertwined.  

It’s a tangle that calls for more than reduction, reusing and recycling.

Through an equity lens, Seals Allers uses Bruce Bekkar’s, MD, et al research to ask questions like “Why are there factories mostly in Black and Brown neighborhoods? Why were Black and Brown people driven to heavily populated urban areas?”

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The association between air pollution and heat exposure with preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth in the U.S., demonstrated in Bekkar’s research, is heavily influenced by systemic racism.

“Compounding the added risks from warming and pollution, Dr. Basu said, research has shown that minority communities tend to have less access to medical help and that minority patients tend not to receive equal levels of treatment,” Christopher Flavelle writes in the NYT piece. 

Flavelle goes on, “Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the problems could not be tackled in isolation.  ‘We need to look at policies that provide equitable opportunities for communities of color,’ Dr. Hollis said. ‘If you address structural racism, I think you’re going to start getting at some of these issues.’”

Seals Allers echoes: “Stop problematizing Black women; look at the systemic solutions.” 

Unsurprisingly, the “solutions” we tend to generate include pouring millions of dollars into synthetic milk instead of investing in breastfeeding and lactating people themselves. 

“It’s very disturbing,” Seals Allers comments in her Facebook stream. “The solution is not around empowering women, it’s not about getting women breastfeeding, it’s about finding synthetic solutions. [There’s ] such a disconnect.” 

Equally concerning in this case, is that the investment into a proposed solution for poor health outcomes related to not breastfeeding, comes from a climate change investment fund. Human milk is arguably the most sustainable food on our planet; why are sub-optimal, artificial substitutes getting so much funding instead of promoting policies and programs that support direct breastfeeding or pasteurized donor human milk

 Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

The conundrum goes beyond the years of milk feeding onto complementary foods which offer corporations new opportunities to target families with Ultraprocessed Foods (UPF). Like artificial milk substitutes,  UPFs pose environmental threats: processing takes natural resources and generates waste. Moreover, UPFs are often heavily marketed in underserved communities, so poor health outcomes continue to be compounded.   

Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner Maffei recently attended a webinar sponsored by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India  (BPNI) and the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPI) on UPFs and their relation to obesity, diabetes, and other health dangers. 

“Presenters from India, Brazil, and Australia shared insights on the health impacts of UPFs, about the market and social forces at play, and also what we can do to advocate reduction in use of these engineered foods,” Turner-Maffei reports. “Brazil in specific has incorporated decreasing UPFs into their dietary guidelines and restricted use of government funds to purchase these foods for school food programs.” 

BPNI and NAPI offer their document on UPFs here

BPNI has also created a WBW action folder.  The document contains information on the carbon footprint of breastmilk substitutes and offers interventions required to support breastfeeding at four levels: policy makers, civil society and breastfeeding advocates, hospitals and doctors and parents. 

Nothing is relevant if we don’t have a hospitable planet. Breastfeeding and appropriate, unprocessed complementary feeding are the roots of a healthy ecosystem that all humans benefit from. 

For more on interconnectedness read Breastfeeding and parallel advocacy. Explore more on infant feeding and our environment here and here.

Spotlight on Fédora Bernard, Program Officer at The Right Livelihood Foundation

Fédora Bernard is currently Program Officer at The Right Livelihood Foundation, an organization established to “‘honour and support courageous people solving global problems’… now widely known as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’”. 

Bernard presenting in Rio.

Before transitioning into her work at The Right Livelihood, Bernard served as Geneva Association for Baby Food and International Liaison Office of the IBFAN Network (GIFA) Program Officer beginning in April 2019, having just newly graduated from the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Développement with a Masters in International Affairs. 

This week, Our Milky Way is pleased to share a Q&A session with Bernard. 

Q: Please share a few highlights during your time with IBFAN. 

A: I am deeply passionate about human rights and GIFA was specialized in exactly that. I think that throughout my time at IBFAN, some highlights would probably be the sessions of the Committee on the Rights of the Child that I attended and advocated at, the World Health Assembly, the fifth session of the Open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights and of course, the World Breastfeeding Conference in Rio. They were all avenues where we could raise awareness and advocate for better national policies.

Q:  What would you consider your greatest triumph with IBFAN?

A: I am not sure I could speak of triumph, at the end of the day my time with IBFAN was quite short and all I did was trying to keep up with the amazing work that has been done by the Geneva office for the past 40 years. Nevertheless, I am very proud of the achievements with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as during my time with IBFAN, “breastfeeding” was mentioned in almost all concluding observations.

Q: In November 2019, you had the opportunity to present IBFAN’s Green Feeding documents. What was that like? How was it received by participants at the World Breastfeeding Conference? 

A: It was an incredible experience, it was an honor to prepare this with Alison Linnecar, who wrote the document and to present it along with experts in the field. I don’t think that I can define myself as an expert, let alone a breastfeeding expert, but I am starting a career in advocacy. I therefore decided that I wanted to emphasize how the Green Feeding Documents could be used as an advocacy tool from an environmental perspective. Therefore, while Alison explained the science behind all of it, I focused on the link between breastfeeding and human rights, more in particular how it can be used in relation to the right to a safe, healthy environment. At the end of the presentation, I was so happy to see that most people in the audience wanted a copy of the green feeding documents…I thought that 30 copies would be enough, but clearly, I was wrong! I wish I had brought more.

Jose Angel Rodriguez-Reyes, expert of the Committee on the Rights of the Child pictured alongside Bernard.

Q: In your piece BREASTFEEDING: BEYOND “WHAT IS BEST FOR YOUR CHILD”, you mention the WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding to Protect, Promote and Support Breastfeeding. We have the framework for better global health outcomes; What is holding us back? Is there one significant barrier standing in the way of a better world? 

A: I believe that from a political perspective, two things are holding us back: The first being the patriarchy and political systems dominated by men. As long as women will not be allowed to play a greater role in global health governance and domestic politics, public health issues such as breastfeeding or issues surrounding menstrual health will not be given the right amount of attention. 

The second element is political will, which is deeply related to the first. Breastfeeding is only seen as a public health issue in developing countries, and aggressive marketing from the formula industry has managed to convince women themselves that they are actually more empowered if they don’t breastfeed. Breastfeeding is thus seen as a weight imposed on them rather than a right that should be protected, promoted and supported by governments. In some societies, it is indeed currently a real hurdle for women to achieve their breastfeeding goals but instead of women in their breastfeeding journeys benefiting from policies, they are given a bottle. I am of the idea that improved breastfeeding policies are not only a matter of public health but also of women’s rights. 

Q: Any advice on how to navigate a climate where people dispute basic facts?

A: That is a very difficult question…Especially because those disputing basic facts are often deeply attached to their position and will give you alternative “facts”…I believe very much in trusted sources, and would always advise these people to check their sources and question them. For instance, if someone shows me an article from the industry containing “facts on breastfeeding” I would draw their attention on why this article could be biased and not based on adequate scientific evidence.

Q: Breastfeeding is a topic that spans across all disciplines. Will you please give us a glimpse into the work you’re doing at The Right Livelihood? 

A: The Right Livelihood Foundation honors and supports courageous people solving global problems, in all disciplines. IBFAN is actually one of them. With civil society space shrinking all over the world, human rights defenders are facing increasing difficulties, which is very true also for breastfeeding advocates. My work at the foundation therefore consists in using the advocacy skills that I developed with IBFAN, to support laureates all over the world.