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Breast Milk, Oil, Water, and Money

— July 16, 2018

Why would the U.S. come out against a resolution in favor of feeding infants breast milk? As with any commodity necessary for life, follow the money.

Humans need so much to live, at least in modern first world industrial culture. Arguably, three of the most basic are breast milk, oil, and water, and all of them had a moment in the news spotlight last week – backed, of course, by a fourth: money. Money always seems to follow close behind when we’re dealing with the necessities of life, doesn’t it?

According to a story the New York Times reported early last week, there was quite a scandal at the UN World Health Assembly this spring when the United States employed strong-arm tactics to block what should have been a common sense, non-binding resolution to promote breast milk for infants. One might not suspect that the most traditional way for mammals like us to provide food and vital immune support for our youngest children would be so controversial, but apparently even breast milk is a threat to good, old-fashioned American industry when spilled into the mouths of babies instead of more profitable, store-bought formula.

What was so offensive about the breast milk guidance that panicked the Trump administration into threatening little Ecuador and a dozen other mostly poor nations with punishing sanctions unless they backed away from the measure? It called for nations to “protect, promote, and support breastfeeding” and redefined “all milk products for children up to age three” as breast milk substitutes. There are valid reasons mothers may choose to feed their infants formula instead. However, potentially losing the ability to step between a mother and her baby and commodify the nutritional transaction is an existential threat to corporations like Nestlé, which used sales reps in nurses’ uniforms to push formula on new mothers while they were still recovering in the hospital. If the administration answers to corporate rather than human interests, that panic makes sense.

Luckily, Russia stepped in at the Assembly and sponsored the breast milk resolution. For some reason, the Trump administration backed down and let Russia get away with it.

Milk gives humans a good start, but modern industrial life relies on petroleum to keep running. Last week, the Associated Press broke the story of another Trump administration figure, Vice President Mike Pence, and how his family’s company privatized profits while socializing the costs of doing business. Pence’s father Edward and, later, older brother Greg headed Kiel Bros. Oil Company, a chain of over 200 gas stations in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois that went bankrupt in 2004. (Greg Pence, who jumped ship at the time of the bankruptcy, is now running as a Republican for Mike’s old House seat, hopefully not on a platform of fiscal conservatism.)

A portrait of Vice President Mike Pence, wearing a suit with a striped blue necktie.
Vice President Mike Pence, pictured here, started working for Kiel Bros. Oil Company when he was only 14 years old. Photo by Gage Skidmore, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

While the Pence family seems to have been happy enough to pocket the money they made while running Kiel Bros., neither the former executive nor the business are interested in paying much of the bill for cleaning up more than 85 of their polluted former gas station sites. Instead, they’re letting taxpayers in three states pick up the most of the tab for the mess, including leaky underground tanks that contaminated soil and groundwater with toxic chemicals, and a Superfund site. One wouldn’t think that the Trump EPA cares much about pollution anymore, but apparently the toxic plume is endangering the aquifer that provides drinking water to the Pences’ home town of Columbus, Indiana, so there’s no expense too big for other people to pay to keep the Veep’s family safe from the consequences of their (in)actions.

Finally, a bit of good news (sort of). Remember the ongoing Flint water crisis that started way back in 2014 and is why many residents are still afraid to drink the water? Elon Musk, the famous all-around rich guy given to PR stunts like launching a car into space and inventing impractical tech for the Thai cave rescue, responded to a Twitter challenge from Seattle musician Dylan Shea to do something about Flint by pledging to “fix the water in any house in Flint that has water contamination above FDA levels.” No, he’s not going to shell out thousands to replace old lead pipes, but he did promise to pay to have water filters installed. Flint families shouldn’t have to rely on private philanthropy to fix a public mess, but maybe it takes a nerd with a heart to help mitigate the damage wrought by Michigan’s “tough nerd” Republican governor.

Related: Curing Patients and Other Bad Moves


Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution by U.S. Stuns World Health Officials
The Epic Battle Between Breast Milk and Infant-Formula Companies
Pence family’s failed gas stations cost taxpayers $20M+
Cleanups at Pence family’s failed gas stations costing taxpayers millions: report
Flint Mayor receives phone call from Elon Musk
Elon Musk Pledges to Help Flint Victims
Kids in Flint still afraid to drink the water
Elon Musk ‘Can Stick His Submarine Where It Hurts,’ Says Diver in Thai Cave Rescue
Nestlé baby milk scandal has grown up but not gone away

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