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.”
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?”
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?
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.