We know there are huge welfare and environmental issues associated with the Irish dairy industry: widespread water pollution causing the collapse of ecosystems [i]; GHG emissions [ii]; and the less talked about issue of hundreds of thousands of male calves being born and packed off to veal farms in Europe or sent on long and arduous journeys to North Africa or the Middle East as young weanlings. [iii]
Profit over health
There is another aspect to the dairy industry which receives scant attention, where yet more suffering takes place for profit – the infant formula (breastmilk substitute) industry where human mothers are sold a lie; that a product made from cows’ milk is equal to or even superior to their own milk.
This industry worldwide is worth over €60 billion per annum; with Ireland’s share a whopping 13%. [iv] Essentially Ireland is making €6 billion yearly from a waste product i.e., whey produced during the separation of milk for the cheese industry.
As Gabrielle Palmer points out in The Politics of Breastfeeding, it was not chance that led to the expansion of the baby milk industry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when mechanisation of the dairy industries had resulted in large whey surpluses. “When a manufacturer has a waste product his first business instinct is to search for a way of marketing that product and the development of baby milk has been a marketing success story, not least in the skill with which the competing product has been destroyed.“ [v] i.e. breastfeeding.
One of Ireland’s biggest customers is China [vi] where the population were mostly lactose intolerant, having had no history of consuming cows‘ milk. However, as in many other countries around the world, mothers succumbed to clever marketing by formula companies, and breastfeeding rates began a steady decline.
In 2008, disaster struck with the poisoning of thousands of Chinese babies with contaminated formula. [vii] A huge gap was left to be filled and in 2014, Ireland launched “Green Love” on to the Chinese market at a premium price of $43 per tin, four times the price of a tin in Ireland. [viii]
Aggressive marketing of infant formula in Asia and Africa
For millennia, human mothers, like other mammals managed to feed our own infants. However, in less than 100 years, we have been, and continue to be, convinced through aggressive advertising that we are incapable of feeding our young. Instead, we are relentlessly bombarded with advertising encouraging us to use a product which increases health risks for mothers and babies [ix].
In countries where sanitation and clean water are not the norm and wages are poor, the effects on babies and the family in general, can be catastrophic. [x] IBFAN (International Baby Food Action Network) [xi] introduced the Nestle Boycott in 1978 [xii] due to the aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes which led directly to the deaths of thousands of infants in African countries. The boycott stands to this day and yet one of the four main infant formula companies exporting to China from Ireland is Wyeth, now part of Nestlé; the others are Abbott, Danone and Kerry Group.
An estimated 800,000 infant deaths and 20,000 maternal deaths from breast cancer would be avoided, according to a 2016 report in The Lancet, if breastfeeding practices recommended by the World Health Organisation were universal.
Ironically not only does the powdered milk industry affect the health of mothers and babies, it is also putting local livestock farmers out of business in many West African countries [xiii].
European producers are using West African markets to offload gallons of a lower quality product derived from constituents of cow’s milk that they cannot sell in the EU. This cheap substitute is bulked up with vegetable fats including palm oil.
Farmers say it is impossible to compete and schools which would have taken their fresh milk are now buying this cheap substitute, thus leading to serious economic decline and potential health issues.
All mothers deserve the chance to feed their young
Feeding infants is an emotive subject; we feel judged as soon as our babies are born and it is imperative to remember that breastmilk substitutes can be a necessary and life-saving product. However, if our government and health services were serious about infant & mother health, far more resources would be available for every new mother; breastfeeding would be fully supported at all levels of society and the WHO Code guidelines[xiv] would be enacted in law to protect mothers and babies. [xv] In addition, Human Milk Banks would be widespread across the country especially for pre-term and very ill babies.
Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rate in Europe – just 6% of babies are being exclusively breastfed at six months, according to a Royal College of Physicians of Ireland report published in May. An entire generation has been lost to the bottle feeding industry, with little support from professionals, nurses or GPs.
Advice for a struggling mother goes along the lines of “listen you’ve given it your best, the baby’s starving, you’re exhausted, here’s a bottle”. For the new vulnerable mother, this is devastating; for the mother less informed about the value of her own milk, formula may seem like a godsend. The Irish dairy industry knows this – they have a captured market, a market that will be theirs for at least two years following the birth.
Oddly enough a similar argument is used to excuse the cruel practice of removing new born dairy calves from their mothers – “it is for their own good, dairy cows make terrible mothers.”
As a society, we must support breastfeeding and normalise it once again. It can be difficult, but when did anything of such importance come without some challenges? There are so many consequences to the massive dairy industry that produces too many animals and too much produce. While Ireland waxes lyrical about the importance of feeding the world, this country is instead contributing to world hunger, ill health, economic decline and the loss of livelihoods for some of the world’s poorest people. It’s not just the calves who suffer as a consequence of conventional dairy farms. Mothers and babies, two legged and four legged, are the ones to suffer unnecessarily – we need to fight for both.
[v] Palmer, G. The Politics of Breastfeeding. London; Pandora Press: 1988. P.3
Lucy Glendinning was born in Cork. She travelled abroad for many years before returning to Ireland to have a family. Following the birth of her third child she trained to become a voluntary Breastfeeding Counsellor with Cuidiu (The Irish Childbirth Trust), a parent to parent support group. Lucy has been a member of a number of environmental groups and animal welfare groups over the years and is a member of the Full Irish Vegan group which ran a very successful campaign of awareness for World Vegan Day in November 2022. Lucy and her family, currently live in Kilkenny with Leia a 6 year old collie mix, Cleo a little black cat and three rescue hens – Gus, Badger and Hector.
This article was originally published on the Ethical Farming Ireland website.