The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week denounced the Trump administration for imposing tariffs that may result in retaliation and an economy-wide trade war. But they haven’t said much about its recent use of trade threats on behalf of multinational corporations.
According to a New York Times report, the administration tried to deep-six a resolution at the World Health Assembly to encourage breastfeeding. It warned smaller nations such as Ecuador that it would face trade sanctions and withdrawal of military aid if it introduced the pro-breastfeeding resolution. Countries succumbed one by one to U.S. intimidation until Russia intervened to stop the bullying, and the resolution finally passed. Even then, U.S. negotiators pulled language that would have urged the World Health Organization to support countries seeking to improve infant nutrition.
Why would Trump officials make a stink about the non-controversial claim that breast milk is healthy? Because there’s a $70-billion, deeply concentrated global industry in baby formula substitutes, which relies on misinformation and ignorance to peddle its product to the world.
Two companies, Abbott Laboratories (makers of Similac) and Mead Johnson (Enfamil), control 80% of the U.S. formula market, and Gerber, a division of Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, has 15%. Formula consists of little more than dehydrated cow’s milk and vitamins (and lots of sugar), yet it somehow costs $150 a month to feed it to an American baby. High prices, which formula manufacturers colluded to produce in the 1990s, have triggered a black market and a ring of grocery thefts.
Using trade as a hammer to obtain long-sought goals for corporate interests is as American as apple pie.
Thanks to scientific evidence as to the value of breastfeeding and falling birth rates, formula sales in the industrialized world are flat. Corporations, however, have strained to fill the gap by increasing sales in the developing world, a strategy that dates back as far as the 1970s.
A 1974 paper called “The Baby Killer” detailed Nestlé’s schemes to confuse young mothers into believing that formula was modern and vital to child development, while bribing Third World hospitals to hook their patients on the stuff. Its success has been credibly linked to millions of unnecessary malnutrition deaths, as poor families struggle to afford high prices and ultimately over-dilute baby formula with water.
Nonprofit organizations have accused formula manufacturers of harming children across the developing world. But that’s easier to shrug off than an official declaration from a United Nations-affiliated organization that breastfeeding is superior to formula. So, as the New York Times intimated, the industry got the Trump administration to try to intervene on its behalf. Its political power is derived from its concentrated economic power, and the clout it provides.
Through his many actions, President Trump is supposedly disrupting the “free trade” consensus. But using trade as a hammer to obtain long-sought goals for corporate interests is as American as apple pie. That’s especially true when it comes to public health, which has perpetually taken a backseat to the desires of multinationals.
For example, the Clinton administration’s trade office sought to protect pharmaceutical companies holding patent rights to HIV/AIDS drugs. It inserted stiff patent protections into global trade deals and even punished Nelson Mandela-led South Africa with sanctions when it tried to import cheaper generics. It took massive activist pressure to reverse the policy, and Clinton later apologized for it.
George W. Bush used similar tactics to defend drug company profits. And the Obama administration, if anything, escalated this policy, openly pressuring poor countries such as India over generic drugs. Doctors Without Borders virulently opposed President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as “a threat to global health” that would “price millions of people out of much-needed medical care.” When Trump pulled out of the TPP, the remaining nations dropped many of the patent protections in their substitute deal; the U.S. was the only country holding things up.
Trade deals routinely include provisions that cap financial regulations, lower food inspection standards or offer legal immunity to the tech industry. In the renegotiation of NAFTA, Trump is seeking to ban warning labels on obesity-causing junk food and sugary drinks.
Special pleading for baby formula companies, then, fits with a long bipartisan tradition of using trade policy to fulfill corporate wish lists, allowing a secret channel to avoid the sunlight of the legislative process.
These details used to inspire tremendous anger, especially on the left, to corporate-written trade agreements. Activists would publicize lists of hundreds of corporate advisors lobbying and in some cases writing the deals. They would condemn the obscure super-court embedded in trade agreements that enabled corporations to sue governments for expected future profits. They ultimately persuaded a large share of the American public that corporate interests were too well represented in trade agreements, leading to bipartisan wariness of such deals in the 2016 election.
The next president will surely try to reverse tariffs, mend fences with allies and “restore” the global trading system. But a return to the status quo will still give us the intolerable corporate-friendly trade agenda that led to the backlash in the first place.
David Dayen is a contributing writer to Opinion.