In what is being looked at as a blatant attempt at protecting baby food manufacturers, the United States has come down hard on Ecuador, threatening to take punitive action against the South American nation if it didn’t withdraw its resolution in support of breastfeeding.
The resolution which urges countries to encourage breastfeeding among lactating mothers, in the interest of child health, was expected to sail through at the UN-affiliated World Health Assembly in Geneva this spring, but the U.S. delegation had different ideas, according to a New York Times report.
To give it you straight, the Americans pretty much said, comply with our demand or face Washington’s fury in the form of trade embargos and withdrawal of crucial military aid.
What the U.S. officials, basically, wanted was to remove language that urged governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding.”
Another clause that the Americans were unhappy with and wanted to be withdrawn was the one that called on policymakers to curtail the promotion of food products that experts say are likely to have harmful effects on young children.
With more and more women embracing breastfeeding in developed countries, the $70-billion baby food industry hasn’t seen much growth in these countries in recent years.
However, Euromonitor – the world’s leading independent provider of strategic market research – says that global sales are expected to grow by 4 percent in 2018, although most of it will happen in developing countries.
Not only did Washington’s strong-arm tactic leave Ecuador with no choice but to eat humble pie, it also put the fear of God in at least a dozen other countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin American, who complied with the U.S. demand out of fear of retaliation, according to Uruguay, Mexico, and U.S. officials, reported the New York Times.
“We were shocked because we didn’t understand how such a small matter like breastfeeding could provoke such a dramatic response,” said an Ecuadorean official, requesting anonymity.
“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” British advocacy group Baby Milk Action’s policy director, Patti Rundall, told NYT.
“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,” she added.
In the end, however, it was the Americans who were left high and dry as the Russians intervened to save the day for the supporters of the proposed resolution.
The U.S. delegation thought the better of twisting the Russian arm.
A Russian delegate – who also requested not to be named, since he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media – told the New York Times that the decision to support the breastfeeding resolution was a matter of principle.
He said that it wasn’t becoming of a superpower to bully the weaker nations of the world, especially when it came to matters that affected the world as a whole.
“We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world,” he said.
While the American representatives did not make any direct attempts to influence the Russian decision, they did resort to procedural manipulation to put pressure on other participating countries, but, largely, to no avail.
The final version of the resolution managed to retain most of the original language, although the American team did somehow manage to remove the part which urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide technical support to member states seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”
“The United States also insisted that the words “evidence-based” accompany references to long-established initiatives that promote breastfeeding, which critics described as a ploy that could be used to undermine programs that provide parents with feeding advice and support,” said the Times.
The State Department declined to respond to the New York Times’ questions, citing restrictions on the department’s officials to discuss private diplomatic conversations.
The Health and Human Services (H.H.S.), however, said that it did not partake in threatening Ecuador, although H.H.S. did explain the decision to contest the resolution’s wording, as it was leading the U.S. efforts to influence the modification.
“The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” an H.H.S. spokesman wrote in an email to NYT.
“We recognize not all women are able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so,” the spokesman said, offering to speak more freely on the condition of anonymity, said the Times.
This was just one example of the current U.S. administration’s unabashed attempts to support corporate interests even if it meant compromising public health, as well as environmental and other issues.