Who’s to blame for the US baby milk crisis? Not mothers who can’t be bothered to breastfeed

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Juanma Hache/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Juanma Hache/Getty Images

Ah, America! The land of the free, and the home of the brave Republican politicians who want to force women to have babies but don’t want to do anything to ensure that babies are fed. The US is in the throes of a nationwide infant formula shortage. The situation is dire: two children were hospitalised in Tennessee because their parents couldn’t find the speciality formula they needed. New York City has declared a state of emergency and the US military has started flying in supplies from Europe (it’s called Operation Fly Formula).

Are the anti-abortion crowd doing everything in their power to fix the problem? Hardly. Almost 200 Republicans recently voted against a bill that would provide $28m (£22.4m) in aid to the Food and Drug Administration to ease the shortage; nine Republicans also opposed a bill to make it easier for low-income parents to get formula through a government programme. Which is all very on-brand, really. “Pro-life”, remember, means that you advocate for the unborn. Once they’re in the world and actually need things, they’re on their own. Time to pull themselves up by their tiny baby bootstraps!

A formula shortage is not just another inconvenient supply chain problem. Babies can’t start eating solid food until they are four months old at the very earliest; if there isn’t any formula available, you can’t just give your baby a bacon sandwich. Nor can you “just breastfeed” at the drop of a hat, as some people have suggested. Bette Midler tweeted: “Try breastfeeding! It’s free and available on demand.” Eric Sammons, the editor of Crisis, a Catholic magazine, tweeted: “I would also say that hopefully this is a wake-up call to become more self-sufficient – God literally designed mothers to feed their babies.”

Sorry, God, but your design has some serious flaws: I suggest you go back to the drawing board. Maybe add a little button that you can turn on and off when you want milk to come out? That would be a lot simpler than the current setup. Breastfeeding may be “natural” but it’s hardly easy for many women. That’s not something that we really talk about enough; indeed, before my own foray into parenthood I had no idea how time-consuming and difficult breastfeeding could be.

Among his sanctimonious and ill-informed twaddle, Sammons does have a point, however. This crisis really should be a wake-up call: we should all be asking ourselves how on earth the richest country in the world managed to get itself into such a situation. While there are a number of factors at play, the simple answer to why so many American families are worried their babies will starve is corporate greed.

The US loves to hold itself up as a beacon of capitalism and Republicans regularly scaremonger about “socialist” Europe. The thing is, though, free markets work a lot better in Europe; there is far more healthy competition than there is in the US, where a few big firms rake in massive profits and everyone else pays the price. One thing that never ceases to astound me as a Briton in the US, for example, is how expensive and limited broadband choices are here. I have just two overpriced options for my home internet and they’re essentially the same.

Other industries are plagued with similar problems, including the baby formula market: just two companies – Abbott and Reckitt Benckiser – control about 80% of the US market. Nestlé has another 10%. Lack of competition in broadband markets is bad enough as it means consumers are stuck paying ridiculously high prices. In the formula market, however, it means that when one company runs into a production issue, babies could starve. So yeah, let this be a wake-up call. Operation Fly Formula is just a sticking plaster. What’s really needed is Operation Fix Capitalism.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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