Friday, February 09, 2007

Spliced rice? Not so nice!

Ventria's newest Frankenfood biotech project has two strikes against it, making it the newest candidate on my Tinfoil Hat worthy list. First, it is a genetically engineered food or genetically modified organism (GMO), which in and of itself makes me twitchy.

An example of the science driving GMOs -------------------------------->

Yes, a tobacco plant spliced with a firefly, feeding starving children and saving lives the world over.

Second, it contains remnants of an abundant, naturally occurring, healthful substance. While claiming to be supporting the good health this substance promotes, instead of encouraging and supporting its natural (and free!) consumption, the biotech firm is trying to isolate it, alter it, splice it, patent it, and sell it.

Ventria's rice is genetically engineered to contain two proteins from human breast milk. The purpose of this super immunized rice, according to the biotech firm, is to treat diarrhea in infants.

Do I have to point out the irony in this?

The Ecologist recently had a fantastic article entitled Suck on This about the global impact of increased infant formula feeding and decreased breast feeding rates. Amid tons (tonnes? The Ecologist is published in the UK) of great information about the risks of substituting breast milk with formula, they include this statistic:

"Even in developed countries, bottlefed babies have rates of diarrhoea twice as high as breastfed ones."

This does not include increased diarrhea caused by water borne diseases in developing countries to which breastfed babies are not exposed. Also, the article states that bottle fed babies are five times more likely to be admitted to a hospital for gastroenteritis.

Now, please don't clog my inbox with a bunch of angry replies about how you COULDN'T breast feed or chose not to because of XYZ. Your stories are very important. Of course, formula is a life saving invention that saves the lives of babies whose mothers have a compelling reason why they cannot or should not breastfeed.

However, that does not change the alarming statistics in the article, or that have been released by the US government on US breastfeeding rates. Exclusive breastfeeding at 6 months in the US has reached a level of 13% as of 2002. Almost 9 out of 10 mothers in the United States are giving their infants formula at least some of the time by the age of 6 months, and most of these are not breastfeeding at all. So, until those numbers improve, please save me the preaching at the choir complaints.

I am a lactation consultant, and am training to be a midwife (or a doctor). I sympathize with the complexities of being a nursing mother in the modern world, have pumped in a car, suffered through mastitis and cracked nipples. I have read the research on why women say they don't breastfeed, and see the biggest problem as women who don't even make it out of the hospital breastfeeding. The main reasons I have read (and seen) from these women is a perceived lack of support, either from their family or from their social and health care network.

Women are increasingly convinced that breastfeeding is a lifestyle choice, and do not see members of their community valuing it or the hard work it takes to be successful at it. With the powers of capitalism behind formula in new and ever frightening ways, it looks like the preaching will continue.

I do not believe these conversations are directed at all at women who have already had children, whether or not they breastfed, and don't plan to have more, except perhaps inform their conversations with future moms and future supporters of breastfeeding. I hate that of all the people I wish would read these articles (employers of future mothers, labor and delivery nurses, pediatricians, obstetricians, parenting magazine writers, future mothers and families of them), the ones I usually hear from are the moms who already know this and feel guilty because they chose not to breastfeed and now regret it, or were one of the few who actually could not breastfeed due to complications or medication, and are already aware of the negatives of formula.

I was part of a great discussion about guilt due to problems breastfeeding on a message board, and think it is a very important topic. One of my closest friends (yes, this sounds like the old "I have a black friend so I can't be a racist" arguments) was not able to breastfeed after trying very hard, and I seriously do not intend to make any mom who has not chosen to breastfeed or could not breastfeed feel guilty or inferior. I just want to support women in the future valuing the effort it takes to breastfeed.

Also, it peeves me that I think the biotech firms are hiding behind infant health because it is hard to criticize a company that is claiming to be saving babies. Why don't they try to breed AIDS drugs into rice? Because, as I see it, people already have to pay (wayyyy too much) for AIDS drugs, not breast milk, and the millions of victims of AIDS (and their orphaned families and communities left behind) aren't quite as sympathetic target group as sick babies. If they spent one tenth of the money they are spending for R & D (and PR) for this new rice on promoting breastfeeding instead, I wonder how many babies they could save.

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