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Need to Know: Trump Admin Bullies International Community Over Breast Milk

Siding with manufacturers of baby formula and infant food, U.S. officials at the World Health Assembly nearly sunk a resolution in support of breastfeeding.

by Zach Harris

Displaced mothers attend training on breastfeeding; photo via UNICEF Ukraine

Continuing in the Trump administration’s rampant destruction of cordial diplomatic engagement, U.S. representatives at the United Nations-backed World Health Assembly made threats to impose trade sanctions and withdraw military aid in a since-failed attempt to block a measure encouraging breastfeeding of infants around the world.

At the assembly held in Switzerland this past May, representatives from Ecuador introduced a widely supported resolution calling on the collected governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding,” according to the New York Times.

But while the World Health Organization and every other member country quickly voiced support for the evidence-based resolution, the Times reports that American representatives were instead working to secure the interests of multinational baby food and formula producers, threatening to impose trade sanctions and pull military aid from Ecuador if it continued to sponsor the measure.

The strong-arm maneuver immediately drew the ire of other delegations, but because of Ecuador’s tenuous economic position and need of military aid, the country’s representatives quickly revoked the measure.

“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, told the Times. “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.”

According to a 2016 study, a worldwide embrace of breastfeeding would prevent some 800,000 child deaths every year, and produce $300 billion in health care savings and global productivity.

Despite U.S. opposition, the resolution was eventually reintroduced by Russia, with U.S. officials caving to the Kremlin instead of trying to flex again. Despite global support for breastfeeding in the document, though, U.S. delegates were successful in removing wording from the resolution that would have attempted to stop “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.” Since Trump took office, U.S. officials have ramped up efforts to protect American companies from health-focused food reform, blocking soda taxes and other anti-sugar efforts.

Even as Trump administration officials were unable to convince the global community to fall in line with lobbyists this time, the latest intimidation efforts were yet another example of the president’s confrontational brand of international diplomacy.

From Trump’s bolstered tariffs on American allies in the European Union, Mexico, and Canada, to his exclusionary immigration policies, the 45th president has repeatedly used the United States’ standing as a global power to intimidate and threaten other nations. So far, those methods have not gone according to Trump’s presumed plan, only making enemies out of allies and leading some American companies to threaten to take manufacturing to greener pastures overseas. The breastfeeding fiasco is having a similar effect, drawing even more international criticism to Trump’s controversial presidency.

“It’s making everyone very nervous,” Ilona Kickbusch, director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, told the Times. “Because if you can’t agree on health multilateralism, what kind of multilateralism can you agree on?”


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Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.



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