When you start talking about climate change you can expect some unusual, difficult questions. I find that the implications of climate change are so far reaching, when people actually take notice, it touches on something very core. On the whole questions relate to issues like ‘what can I do about it?’ ‘how do we know it’s real?’ ‘how can we tackle it and ensure economic growth?’ and the like.
At this week’s Social Justice Ireland Event on climate justice and policy coherence someone in the audience asked me one of the most left field questions yet: should we be encouraging women to breastfeed to combat climate change? The question raised a few eyebrows, not to mention a few laughs (not least because it was a rather elderly gentleman who asked it!). Having breastfed my boys for very different reasons, I was trying to understand his viewpoint. I struggled to do justice to his sincere question. He got me thinking however: breast milk is free, has no food miles, has zero carbon footprint, is a natural process. I began to see he had a point – not only is it good for mother and baby, it is also environmentally sustainable too.
This sense that he may be on to something grew as I sat at the Fine Gael National Conference in Castlebar last night and listened to the Taoiseach speech about our national strategy for economic recovery. The aggressive export driven development of the agri-food sector is central to that recovery. Ireland sees itself as a quality food basket for emerging economies, providing beef and dairy to burgeoning global middle classes. A significant increase in our national beef and dairy herd is central to it’s achievement. That is sure to please many many rural communities who have been decimated by the crash. The only ‘small’ problem is that it will be near on impossible to lower national climate emissions if the national herd increases. Agriculture already contributes around 40% of all Irish emissions.
One key part of this strategy is to grow Ireland’s role in the infant formula industry: “Developing countries across the world have a growing thirst for dairy products, especially infant formula. Irish companies are already making strong inroads into these markets, including China, and this is expected to grow in the coming year as we ramp up production. (Taoiseach Enda Kenny) I have to say I let out an audible gasp when the Taoiseach said that (to the disapproval of the party faithful surrounding me!)
Haven’t we learnt anything? It only seems like yesterday we were protesting against the Nestlé powdered milk scandals, where mothers were being targeted to substitute breast milk in poor countries where access to clean water remains an issue of life and death. That scandal has not gone away, as this recent Guardian article shows. Ireland, however, has become a champion of infant nutrition both through its first thousand days campaign nationally, and internationally via the SUN initiative. And here we are, literally exporting a heavily industrialised model of food production globally, at great cost to the environment and vulnerable populations. There is a deep contradiction at the heart of these policies.
It points to the need for a transformative shift in how we view food and agriculture if we are to really address climate change. At present there is little sign it is happening – at least in official circles. There is an uphill battle ahead on that front. So the man who asked me the rather odd question clearly had a point. Everything is interconnected – and it starts with mother’s milk.