The comedian Michael Feldman wrote a funny and informative piece this week in the NY Times on the raw milk controversy in Wisconsin. Many small dairy farmers are clamoring for legislation making it easier to sell raw milk. Interest group politics infuse this issue, but the underlying ideology is the point of this post.
Raw milk is part of the larger raw foods movement afoot in the land. And the raw foods movement is part of an even larger ideological movement that I call “natural is better” (NIB). NIB has followers across the population and appeals to people of varying educational levels and social classes. Although many advocates of NIB are normal folks just interested in being healthy and happy, I argue that the underlying sentiments that animate this movement are strongly anti-capitalist, anti-modernist, and anti-scientific.
From an evolutionary perspective, there is a certain (naïve) logic to NIB ideology. Because evolution happens very slowly and modern technology developed very rapidly, our bodies are adapted to live in a very different environment than the one in which we now reside. Thus, if we want to live the life our natural history intended for us, we should consume natural products. However, from a strict naturalistic perspective, everything in the universe is natural; thus a beaver dam is not substantively different from a DuPont chemical factory. Since everything is natural, everything produced by natural things must also be natural. NIB, therefore, is not as much a naturalistic ideology as it is a highly reactionary one. To adopt an NIB view is to say two things that are hard to reconcile: first, that nature is best; second, that humankind is somehow outside of (and inferior) to nature.
The raw milk people claim that pasteurization kills all the “healthy bacteria” present in milk. They do not want to talk about the unhealthy bacteria. Unfortunately, the healthy bacteria advocates frequently overstate evidence for these supposed benefits and minimize the risks. Scientists at the CDC summarize the evidence as follows: “There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria. Drinking pasteurized milk has never been found to be the cause of any disease, allergy, or developmental or behavioral problem.” (See here for more.)
This raw milk movement should give pause to anyone with even a passing familiarity with public health history. For decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public health reformers fought against farmers, transporters, retailers and public ignorance to clean up the milk supply in this country (pasteurization was the most important part of this effort, but by no means the only component). Most historians of public health view clean milk as one of the primary causes of the dramatic reductions in infant and child mortality that occurred in the early 20th century (and one, incidentally, that would likely not have occurred without the hand of government). When you think about raw milk, instead of imagining healthy bacteria doing magical work in your intestines, you should think about the following: Brucella, Campylobacter, Listeria, Mycobacterium bovis, Salmonella, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Shigella, Streptococcus pyogenes, and Yersinia enterocolitica—dangerous bacteria that can be present in unpasteurized milk products today. While it is true that even without pasteurization, milk production is vastly cleaner and safer than it was in the 19th century, significant risks from raw milk persist, especially to infants and small children. Giving raw milk to an infant or toddler is a form of child abuse.
Another realm in which we see NIB affecting daily life is in the area of so-called “natural childbirth.” Most of my own children were delivered by midwives (at hospitals), so I’m not opposed to midwifery or trying to make the birthing process simple and as non-medical as possible. Nature prepares women and infants very well to go through the traumatic ordeal of childbirth. Mother Nature knows her stuff!
But let’s poke a little deeper into natural childbirth. One of the things that truly natural childbirth means is a maternal mortality rate (MMR) of about 1 in 100 births. That is a reasonable estimate of maternal mortality in the United States before modern medical advances of the 20th century. Several developing countries have MMR today even higher than that (between 1-2 maternal deaths per 100 live births). Contrast this with the MMR of the U.S. today, which is a little more than 1 in 10,000 births. In other words, natural childbirth is about 100 times more risky to the mother than modern childbirth. It is also vastly more risky to the infant. As long as the birth happens in close proximity to a modern operating room with a trained medical staff, I say let these natural birthers scream their lungs out, deliver their babies underwater, eat as many silly herbs as they want, and do whatever hocus pocus they learn on the internet. But what is spooky is the trend towards at-home births, with the idea that being at home is preferred to a medical delivery because “nature knows best.”
We live in a world where modern, educated women are choosing to have their babies at home, feed their children unpasteurized milk and then fail to get them immunized against potentially fatal diseases because a bimbo like Jenny McCarthy has convinced them that immunizations cause autism (They Don’t!). A common consequence of NIB as it plays out in society is that it can lead unwitting individuals to believe ridiculous things that, ironically, could not be further removed from true nature. I believe in letting people live their lives, but I also believe the State has some role to play in protecting children. How to craft policy in this area is one of the great challenges of our day.
This is the first of what will hopefully by several posts on NIB – where it comes from, how it manifests itself, what the implications are, how it shapes our politics, and what the State role is, and possibly other questions of importance. I look forward to reader feedback.