It’s funny how long it took me to see that there’s really a very straightforward economic logic in corporate behavior, and that its consequences are obvious if you know to look for them.
The latest one that Marion Nestle points out in What To Eat is a continuation of how she covered breast feeding and infant formula in Food Politics. She put the case against infant formula straightforwardly there:
To understand the larger significance of this campaign, we need to start with three undeniable premises: (1) breast milk is superior to any other food for infants, (2) nearly all mothers are fully capable of breast-feeding, and (3) even the slightest effort to promote use of formula undermines the ability to breast-feed.
Here in What To Eat, we have what looks like an equally clear-cut case. I love how Nestle starts:
Underlying the controversy is the unpleasant reality for the companies that make infant formulas and baby foods: the market for these products is severely limited. For these products, the usual methods for corporate growth do not work. The companies that make infant formulas and baby foods cannot easily attract new customers or persuade old customers to buy more and eat more. For formulas, the size of the market depends entirely on the number of babies born each year and the proportion that are not breast-fed. But formula companies have no control over how many babies are born, so the only way they can increase sales is to discourage breast-feeding (hence the need for an international code of ethics). Sales of baby foods also depend on the number of babies born. But older infants and toddlers eat those foods just for a year or two, so the only way baby food companies can increase sales is by promoting use of their products for longer time periods. With these kinds of constraints, the companies that make formulas and baby foods compete fiercely to hold or increase their share of an extremely restricted market.
Nestle describes another huge constraint later on: all baby formulas are nutritionally identical, by law.
Because formulas (if used in place of breast milk) are the only source of nutrition for infants, they have to contain everything babies need to grow. If they lack even one essential nutrient, as happens on occasion, babies can become ill and die. To make sure that formulas are complete, the FDA closely regulates and monitors their contents. The result is that all brands of infant formulas must have a virtually identical nutritional composition. The nutritional similarity of infant formulas poses another marketing problem for their makers. If the products are all the same, it makes no difference which brand you buy.
It would be interesting to figure out which activities society judges too important for market allocation. The defense industry and blood donation come to mind. Baby formula is somewhere on the spectrum between pure free-market allocation and purely centralized allocation. It would be interesting to ask why society considers baby formula too risky to leave to the market. If you have more faith in the market, you’ll trust companies to develop a brand identity, and trust mothers to be extremely brand-sensitive. Why mandate nutrients? Why not just assume that mothers and markets will converge to the right solution? It’s not a ridiculous question. In all likelihood, society had this very debate at one point and answered the question.
(Relevant cites here, from What To Eat : “Infant Formula: Evaluating the Safety of New Ingredients” and Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890-1950. The latter, at least, is on its way to me.)
As the years go by, buying formula rather than breastfeeding seems like a more and more terrible idea. First, it’s nutritionally deficient. Second, I can’t imagine that mother and child develop nearly the bond when she sticks a bottle in her baby’s mouth as when the baby is drawing nourishment directly from her body. And third, infant formula is another instance where industrial capitalism pushes its own “solutions” on humanity, replacing a perfectly good natural solution with one that either immediately or eventually proves to be harmful. Why not skip the factory altogether and give your baby what nature gave you? If I ever have kids, that’s surely what my wife and I will do.
This is a variant of the precautionary principle. I got in a debate a few years back on Professor Larry Solum’s blog about this question. I’ve not refreshed my memory very intensely about how that debate went, but I remember that he basically thought I was downplaying the upside potential: why not adopt a new technology if it might bring great benefits to the world’s food supply?
The answer seems clearer now than it did then: these developments all help companies, and very rarely help us. They make food cheaper, but we in the U.S. have all the food we need. If anything, we need to teach people to eat less. Genetic engineering, pesticides on plants, and antibiotics in cattle feed all look like they’ll be great boons, but they’re mostly boons for Monsanto. I want beef that’s beef, tomatoes that are tomatoes, and nothing but breast milk for my baby. I don’t need food from factories.
Of course the label is already out there: those who insist on a more natural food supply are snobs. If you want organic food, you’re a spoiled yuppie.
I don’t think that argument even deserves a response. The ones who have some explaining to do are the ones who’ve made most urban rivers unswimmable, and who’ve turned the Gulf of Mexico into a massive dead zone. Until they convince me that these are sensible tradeoffs for cheap food, I’m going to buy organic. And I’m going to do what I can to help poor people afford it, too.