As Gabrielle Palmer writes in The Politics of Breastfeeding: "This was seen as a matter of life and death, as Charles Warrington Earle stated at a meeting of the American Medical Association in 1888: 'One food nourished a given baby well, but may, if administered persistently, kill the next baby.' A variation of 0.1 per cent of an ingredient was thought to be crucial. The mother had to return every few weeks to have the formula adjusted."
A mothers breastmilk does, of course, vary throughout a feed and from day to day as the baby grows, tailored to its nutritional needs. As a mother produces antibodies to infections in the environment, these are also passed to the child as a dose of medicine with every feed. Medical science now, as one hundred years ago, cannot repicate this, however complicated a formula is written.
Gay continues: "However when this cult of individuality became commercially inconvenient to the doctors it rapidly went out of fashion."
There was another factor in play. The milk food first produced by Henri Nestlé and the condensed milk Nestlé produced after merging with the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company in 1905. Other companies also entered the market with condensed and evaporated milks for infant feeding.
From the Politics of Breastfeeding again: "In the milk-producing countries, improvements in dairy production led to whey surpluses that prompted the search for a market outlet. Whey became the base for artificial baby milk as it is today, not because research proved it to be the most suitable food, but because it was there and it was cheap."
I suppose we could look on this as efficient use of resources, using an otherwise waste product for feeding for infants. Of course, nearly all infants already had a ready supply of food - their mother's breastmilk - so this had to be supplanted to provide a use for the whey surpluses.
Over a hundred years later and in Australia we learn that: "A $50 MILLION business to produce a vital ingredient that helps infant formula better mimic breast milk was launched yesterday."
A new factory is being built. According to The Standard:
The plant will turn the low value cheese by-product whey into Vivinal GOS, a crucial component in the $25 billion global infant formula market.
Warrnambool Cheese and Butter chief executive officer Neil Kearney said the GOI plant was expected to export $30 million in product by 2010, processing the whey from WCB's annual 40,000-tonne cheese production.
"What we will be selling is about 15,000 tonnes of product of GOS, which is the lactose derivative we will extract from the whey,'' he said.
"It is our single biggest joint venture but most importantly it is adding a lot of value to what is primarily waste for us.''
CB chairman David Karpin said the GOI project would be a financial winner, reduce WCB's effluent output and help with water efficiency.
It is interesting to see this dressed up as an environmental gain, reducing effluent output and helping with water efficiency. Promoting formula use in place of breastfeeding, as the baby food companies do, is to replace the most locally produced food that exists with one that uses energy and pollutes in its production.
In tackling climate change, governments should consider the impact of aggressiving marketing of baby foods in undermining breastfeeding. There is an environmental case for implementing the World Health Assembly (WHA) marketing requirements as well as health and social ones.The UK Government does not include this in its Regulatory Impact Assessment for the draft Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations, though this is supposed to consider sustainability and environmental issues.
With over 700,000 infants born in the UK each year and a quarter being formula fed from birth, bringing the law into line with the WHA requirements could make a valuable contribution to meeting carbon reduction targets, not through compelling mothers to breastfeed, but by respecting their right to accurate information and support. According to the government's own survey 9 out of 10 women who stopped breastfeeding during the first 6 months, said they had not breastfed as long as they wanted. And while initiation rates in the UK are just 76%, in Sweden they are 98%. The difference between the countries is not biological, but fundamentally political.
Mothers in the UK stop breastfeeding earlier than they want because we fail them.
That may be good news for industries looking to make profit from effluent, but it is not good news for infants and mothers.