Chapter 8 Ecofeminist Critique of the Milk Industry: from Mammal Mothers to Biocapitalist Bovines

In: Feminist Animal and Multispecies Studies: Critical Perspectives on Food and Eating
Sanna Karhu
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In the ecofeminist critiques of the milk industry, the prominent way to theorise the industrialised production of bovine milk is to draw an analogy between cows and women. Through this framework of “mammal mothers”, ecofeminists seek to question the anthropocentric assumptions of nursing and theorise ethical relations anew. I critically expand upon these discussions by exposing some of their taken-for-granted presumptions to philosophical critique. First, I problematise the gendering presumptions of nursing pertaining to the category of “mammals.” Second, I argue that a feminist critique of biocapitalism offers a more promising avenue for a critique of the milk industry.

1 Introduction

Breastfeeding and lactation are widely explored questions in contemporary feminist theory (e.g., Hausman 2003; Smith 2017; Woollard 2019). In these discussions, breastfeeding is understood as a bodily practice that is strongly regulated by misogynist cultural norms and attitudes. The way we conceive of breastfeeding and breastfeeders is thus informed by larger structures of oppression against women. Therefore, breastfeeding and lactation are taken as necessary objects of feminist study.1 Although most of the feminist scholars examining human milk emphasise that breastfeeding should be conceived of as a social practice and not “natural” in any simplistic way, the category of woman is generally left untouched, however. As the category of woman remains unproblematised, the feminist accounts of breastfeeding rely implicitly on the assumption that only women, that is, only cis-women who have recently given birth, can breastfeed. Consequently, the varied nursing practices of gender diverse people, such as non-binary and trans2 parents, for example, are left out of feminist inquiry. Another lacuna in these discussions is the omission of ecofeminist theorisations of milk, because of which the anthropocentric background premise of milk as human milk goes unproblematised as well. Consequently, feminist studies on nursing have paid little or no attention to the oppression of the bodies of other lactating mammals, such as cows in the dairy industry.

My chapter critically extends upon the growing feminist literature on nursing by questioning these taken-for-granted presumptions that characterise current discussions of milk and breastfeeding and expose them to feminist philosophical critique. I will problematise the notion that only cis-women who have recently given birth can breastfeed but I will also question the presumption that it is primarily human milk that necessitates feminist theoretical attention. My aim in this chapter is not to provide merely an account of lactation that will include marginalised bodies—human or animal—into feminist theorisation of nursing, however. My broader aim is to advance the feminist philosophical background work on which to start developing theoretically and conceptually perceptive feminist accounts of milk and nursing. To do this, I will bring the ecofeminist critiques of the dairy industry into contact with the budding queer and trans discussions of nursing. Critically cross-feeding these two different approaches enables me to question the naturalised conception of nursing as something that solely “females” can do as well as theorise lactation and milk beyond the anthropocentric framework. My chapter aims thus to develop further feminist theorisations of milk by revising the central concepts deployed in these discussions.

While the normative assumption that only cis-women can breastfeed is often an implicit and unproblematised premise in feminist discussions of nursing, in recent ecofeminist theory, the connection between womanhood and breastfeeding is taken even a step further. A leading ecofeminist scholar Greta Gaard, for example, has proposed a “feminist milk studies” (Gaard 2013, 613) that is grounded in the understanding that it is exactly female mammals that produce milk. She introduces the concept of “mammal mothers” as the basis for feminist and postcolonial milk studies. With this conceptual framework, she analyses both the cultural undervaluation of breastfeeding as well as human and animal suffering in the global dairy industry. Similar arguments can be found from feminist animal scholar Carol J. Adams’s work (Adams 1990; 2017). While I think their ecofeminist theorisations of milk are important as they call into question the anthropocentric framework on which most feminist analyses of nursing and milk rest, I will argue that some of their main claims and concepts need to be questioned.

The association of women and breastfeeding is so strong in contemporary feminist and ecofeminist discussions of nursing that the normative assumption of gender as a binary category is almost never questioned or reflected upon, although “gender” in feminist theory is generally conceived of as an historical and not a natural category. This is so despite the fact that the social and legal inclusion of non-normative families and parents (e.g., LGBTIQ+ families and parents) in the West has already begun to shape the language used in perinatal services and policies as well as lactation organisations and activism. Thanks to new trans affirmative policy at a National Health Service trust in Brighton and Sussex, UK, for example, midwives have been advised to use gender-inclusive terms when working with trans or non-binary parents.3 These include such terms as “chestfeeding” and “human milk” instead of “breastfeeding” and “breastmilk”.

Given that queer and trans theories have problematised naturalised understandings of sexual and gender identities already from the 1990s onward and developed such concepts as “heteronormativity” and “cisnormativity” that have significantly shaped feminist theory, it is surprising that prominent feminist discussions of nursing—including ecofeminist ones—have bypassed such remarkable and paradigm changing theoretical legacies. At the same time, breastfeeding and chestfeeding as adequate research topics have long been neglected in queer and trans theorisations. It is only recently that queer and trans scholars have begun to question the naturalised assumptions of gender found in medical, popular, and mainstream feminist accounts of breastfeeding (see e.g., Lee 2017; Lee 2018b; Cohen 2017; Riggs 2013).

Drawing on the queer and trans discussions of nursing I will contend that building an ecofeminist account of lactation on the category of “mammal mothers” takes the risk of re-naturalising gender as a stable binary category. This kind of naturalisation further risks reinforcing the cultural and political exclusion and dehumanisation of those who do breast/chestfeed but who do not fit the normative notions of gender and breastfeeder. These include nonbinary persons, trans people, queer folks as well as adoptive parents. The aim of my article is therefore to suggest an alternative conceptual and theoretical framework, one that both acknowledges the queer and trans notions of breastfeeding/chestfeeding and takes seriously the ecofeminist critiques of the dairy industry. I will argue that such a framework could be found from the feminist critiques of capitalism, biocapitalism in particular.

I will proceed by first examining the key arguments in Gaard and Adams’s ecofeminist critiques of the milk industry. I take these critiques as my starting point, but I will argue that some of their key assumptions need revision. In the second section, I move to explore the ways in which the concept of “mammals” introduced in 18th century functioned as a regulative and political category that targeted breastfeeding in Europe. The goal of this section is to shed light to the problems pertaining to the ecofeminist use of the concept of “mammal mothers”. The second section also paves the way for my analysis of the gendering practices in today’s milk industry. The third section focuses on formulating a feminist critique of biocapitalism by developing further recent ecofeminist problematisations of capitalism. In the concluding section, I summarise my main arguments by briefly discussing the human/animal dualism.

2 Mammal Mothers

In her influental article “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies” (2013), Gaard offers an ecofeminist analysis of milk by drawing on feminist theory, postcolonial theory, critical animal studies, and food studies. By “bringing these knowledge fields together through a new intersectional field of feminist postcolonial milk studies” her aim is to examine “the multiple complex cultural assumptions and material practices articulated through milk” (Gaard 2013, 599). She focuses on such diverse issues as the global expansion of the dairy industry and its consequences on subsistence farming in developing countries; the chemicals and toxins found in breast-milk as a question of environmental racism; breastfeeding as undervalued care work; the hormonal basis of mother-infant bonding in nursing mammals; as well as the ethical problems pertaining to the instant separation of calves from cow mothers after birth, a regular practice in the dairy industry. Gaard (2013, 598–99) argues that only by analysing these complex issues together as a whole through the lens of intersectional and postcolonial ecofeminism, can we start to comprehend the common ground of human and animal oppression in relation to milk.

For Gaard, intersectional ecofeminism includes the categories of species and nature in addition to other categories of oppression, such as gender, sexuality, class, and race (Gaard 2013, 596). As the concept of “feminist postcolonial milk studies” implies, Gaard seeks to outline her ecofeminist approach to milk also in terms of postcolonial critique.4 Here she takes up Alfred Crosby’s (1986) seminal concept of “ecological imperialism” that emphasizes European colonialism both as a political and biological project, which has always operated and continues to operate through agribusiness.5 Colonialist practices thus encompass not only the violent appropriation of Indigenous land and the expropriation of natural resources, but also the introduction of European livestock and agricultural practices, dairy cattle, and dairying most notably (Cohen 2020, 39). As Mathilde Cohen (2020, 36) notes, “lactating animals became integral parts of colonial and neo-colonial projects” as vehicles of imperial agro-expansionism and thus “milk colonialism”.6

It is in this sense that also Gaard examines the global milk industry in her article. She focuses on the case of Operation Flood in India as it illustrates the intertwining goals of European corporate interests and business elites in developing countries. Operation Flood was a dairy development program in 1970-1996 that turned India into the world’s largest milk producer. The Indian dairy corporation Amul’s employee Verghese Kurien offered Operation Flood as the solution to a challenging market situation. The European Economic Community (EEC) hold an enormous surplus of milk powder and butter in the late 1960s, a part of which was dumped as food aid to developing countries, such as India. As Gaard (2013, 604–605) notes, food aid has never been devoid of colonial or corporate aims as it can serve the opening of future markets for commercial sales.7 As Amul was India’s biggest producer of milk powder, butter, and baby-food, Kurien’s—who also served as a chair of India’s National Dairy Development Board—task was to prevent the threat to the corporation’s profits.8 The solution was to sell the food aid products to the public—not to give them to the poor as charity.

The funds from the sales were invested into intensification and modernisation of India’s dairy production: replacing subsistence dairying for larger cooperatives and mass production; introducing western dairy technologies and practices; importing northern European breeds to replace the indigenous cows and buffalos, whose milk production could not sustain intensive dairying. This enabled Amul to maximise its dairy production and ensured the corporate’s profit growth as well as market expansion as milk was not only marketed and sold to the cities’ middle classes but also produced for export. (Gaard 2013, 604–6).

As Gaard points out, although Operation Flood was marketed as progressive “white revolution” to the public and media, the project weakened the social and economic status of rural women as they had to give up the preparing and selling of ghee, traditionally women’s task and a crucial way to earn money. “With operation Flood”, Gaard writes, “the new crossbreeds required additional feeding and milking labor from women and children, and the milk was sold for cash, leaving women no economic returns and lowering their status in the family economy” (Gaard 2013, 606). Compared to the minimal upkeep of indigenous breeds (e.g., they have accustomed to the climate and local vegetation; have stronger immunity to diseases and parasites; are calving easily), the upkeep of the new breeds was more expensive as they required regular veterinary care and special feeds. Operation Flood not only crumbled “an already precarious subsistence farming (often powered by women’s work)” but further crumbled the economic status of farmers as they got a “barely remunerative price” for the milk, “throwing thousands of people into real material poverty” (Gaard 2013, 606–7). As Gaard’s analysis of Operation Flood demonstrates, milk colonialism does not only operate by imposing the western practices of intensive dairying upon the farmers of developing countries, but also, and importantly, through the capitalist accumulation of profit for the business elites in western countries and developing countries.

Another example Gaard gives of milk colonialism is the toxic chemicals found from the breastmilk of Indigenous and poor communities of color in the USA. She (2013, 598) mentions Akwesasne midwife Katsi Cook’s Mother’s Milk Project that sought to draw attention to the bioaccumulation of industrial chemicals in the ecosystem, and particularly breastmilk. Cook founded the project after high levels of PCB s was discovered from Mohawk mothers’ milk in the 1980s due to the Akwesasne Nation’s location near the plants and waste dumps of General Motors. As an example of environmental racism, chemicals in breast milk demonstrate “additional colonial practices, linking the continued expropriation of resources and transfer of wastes to communities of color, and rural and impoverished communities around the world” (Gaard 2013, 598).9

As these examples of milk colonialism illustrate, Gaard’s article offers one of the pioneering attempts to combine ecofeminist framework with postcolonial critique to address milk as a feminist question and problematise the milk industry.10 The central value of her approach lies in outlining milk—human and animal—as a multidimensional and intersectional feminist question. Despite its merits, her approach has a few problems, however. First, as it loosely connects very different kind of issues around the main topic of milk, it lacks clear analytical focus, leaving the article rather descriptive. Therefore, the exact mechanisms of current dairy capitalism and its feminist critique remain underexplored. One of the reasons for this can be found from her theoretical framework. Since Gaard seeks to touch simultaneously multiple angles of the question of milk with her postcolonial, intersectional ecofeminism, the main arguments remain overly general and thus vague. What exactly are the connections between India’s mass dairy industry, the chemicals found in Indigenous people’s breastmilk and the separation of calves from cow mothers after birth, for example? Albeit these examples all illustrate the histories of racism, colonialism, and speciesism in relation to milk, the particular mechanisms of oppression and relations of power remain unclear, as do the rigorous feminist critique of them as well.

A further problem pertains to the terminology of gender vis-à-vis lactation. Given her emphasis on intersectional feminism and postcolonial framework, it comes as a surprise that in the conclusion of the article Gaard highlights gender, or mammal motherhood, as the point of departure for feminist milk studies.

Ideologically imprisoned in a humanist colonial framework, few human mothers who breastfeed their infants use this embodied experience as an avenue for empathizing with other mammal mothers; few human parents who touch and nurture their newborns have used these behaviors’ affectionate oxytocin release as an opportunity to consider the experiences of other animal parents locked in systems of human captivity. Feminist milk studies addresses the bio-psycho-social connections produced through the behavioral and material elements of this first relationship, the mother–infant bond, and their nursing milk.

(Gaard 2013, 613, emphasis added)

Through the conceptual pairing of “mothers” and “other mammal mothers” (i.e. cows), Gaard seeks to articulate an ecofeminist ethics that would take seriously the shared experiences of motherhood beyond the species line or geographical location. The attachment between the child and mother in the act of nursing represents for her a fundamental biological and hormonal need, which she defines as a species-specific behaviour that connects all the animals belonging to the class of mammals. She emphasises several times that the sudden breaking of this bond causes enormous suffering to both the calve and the mother: “inside each glass of milk is the story of a nursing mother separated from her offspring” (Gaard 2013, 612). As she goes on, “cows separated from their calves bellow and appear to grieve for days afterwards, sometimes ramming themselves against their stalls in attempts to reunite with their calves” (ibid.). Therefore, she argues that it is ethically problematic to disrupt this bond by separating the suckling—be it human or nonhuman—from the lactating mother. As a central aim of her feminist milk studies, then, Gaard calls for a new ecofeminist ethics that is based on empathising with all “mammal mothers”, specifically the cows and calves suffering in the confines of the milk industry. As she argues in the passage above, this kind of feminist empathy becomes available through the embodied experience of parenting and, more importantly, through the symbiotic experiences of breastfeeding and the hormonal surge of oxytocin enabled by the “mother-infant” bond.

Given that Gaard stresses the importance of an intersectional approach in her ecofeminist and postcolonial milk studies, her emphasis on “mothers” and “other mammal mothers” in the conclusion of her article may come across as inconsistent. Yet, this theoretical choice mirrors quite well Gaard’s main thesis that she posits in the introduction of her article. There, Gaard argues that “Because milk is produced by female mammals, a feminist perspective seems to offer a logical foundation for such inquiry” (Gaard 2013, 595, emphasis added). While Gaard’s general framework of intersectional and postcolonial feminism allows her to analyse many different political aspects of milk and lactation, she ultimately grounds her notion of breastfeeding on the notion of mammal motherhood that is interpreted in terms of biological parenting as her lengthy descriptions of the hormonal bonding between the mother and the child demonstrate.11

While I agree that it is ethically problematic to break the symbiotic bonding between an infant and a mother or birthing parent be they humans or cows, grounding an ecofeminist ethics of milk on the workings of hormones is to reduce complex social and political phenomena—such as parenting and infant feeding—to mere biology. Even though the enjoyable feelings of infant-parent bonding and breastfeeding might be linked to the oxytocin surge in the brain, it is a sweeping generalisation to draw a parallel between the experiences of “cow mothers” and “human mothers”. Motherhood and parenting are socially constituted historical categories, not primarily biological ones. Although I am sympathetic towards the idea of empathetically recognising the importance of parenthood and caring of offspring across species, equating the practices of human and animal “mothering” like Gaard does would need much more theoretical and historical analysis to be convincing.12

I argue that this kind of biologism informs not only Gaard’s notion of motherhood and breastfeeding but also her understanding of gender that guides her ecofeminism of milk. By drawing an analogy between lactating human and cow mothers—or “other mammal mothers” as she calls them—she naturalises nursing as an ability of bodies that only female mammals have. Her understanding of nursing thus rests on a notion of gender that is interpreted as a biological category, that is, “sex.” This is a peculiar theoretical move bearing in mind that prominent ecofeminist scholars, including Gaard herself (Gaard 2011), have sought to distance themselves from ontological and biological essentialism from the 1990s onward.

Essentialist assumptions regarding gender and other categories of difference became the target of heightened critique when post-structural modes of thinking started to gain more ground in feminist theory in the 1990s (see e.g., Butler 1990; 1993). This critique concerns specifically the understanding that women shared certain universal features or experiences as women as well as the claim that gender differences could be explained by natural characteristics. Accordingly, ecofeminism also became an object of critique as it appeared to conceive of women as a monolithic category and, more importantly, because it seemed to draw a strong analogy between women and nature.13 While ecofeminist theorisation has always been a diverse body of scholarship with scholars holding differing views depending on their theoretical commitments and backgrounds, this critique targeted particularly the gynocentric strand of ecofeminism that hold “women” as a unified category and group that is oppressed in a similar manner as “nature” by the patriarchy (see e.g., Daly 1990).14

In the history of feminist thought, scholars have made tremendous effort to dismantle the argument according to which women are in some way closer to nature or animals than men and therefore incapable of rational thought and political participation in the public sphere. The main problem of this kind of essentialism that constitutes “women” as a natural and biological category is that gender—and thus power relations related to gender—are seen as immutable and apolitical. Naturalised notions of gender not only legitimate women’s oppression but also repudiate the lives of gender non-conforming people, such as trans, intersex, genderqueers, and non-binary persons. Gynocentric ecofeminism seemed to reiterate age-old essentialist claims and hence reinforce rather than challenge patriarchal and heteronormative power relations. Although Gaard herself calls for the rejection of all kinds of essentialisms in one of her previous articles (Gaard 2011), her notion of “mammal mothers” as a conceptual basis for a feminist theorisation of milk suggests otherwise.

In a similar fashion as Gaard, ecofeminist and animal ethics scholar Carol J. Adams has suggested that the domination of women and the suffering of cows in the milk industry is based on the structurally similar operation of oppression, that is, on “the sexual exploitation of female bodies” (Adams 2017, 19). In conceptualising this connection, she critically analyses the advertisements of milk and other dairy products that often represent cows as feminised and sexualised figures, such as cows wearing high heels, garters, or scarves. The sexualisation of cows in her view serves the normative logic through which the “food” animals are culturally produced as objects of desire and consumption. According to this argument, the feminisation of cows is connected to the misogynist cultural norms that construct women as sexual objects available for symbolic and physical consumption (Adams 2017, 20). Adams develops this argument in her trailblazing book The Sexual Politics of Meat (2015/1990), in which she coined the concept of “feminised protein”. In her words, the concept seeks “to call attention to the use of female animals’ reproductive cycles to produce food” and to the ways in which cows’ “labor is both reproduction and production” (Adams 2017, 22).

When it comes to the specific case of bovine milk production, Adams argues that “Feminized protein from other species that is sold to humans arises from a destroyed relationship between mother and child and signals our broken relationship with other animals” (2017, 22, emphasis added). Throughout her work, she has defended a feminist ethics of care as a form of resistance against the sexual oppression of women and the violent treatment of factory farmed animals.15 As a critique of the milk industry, she calls for what might be characterised as “care ethical sisterhood”, that acknowledges the connection between misogyny and the industrialised oppression of female animals, such as cows (Adams 2017, 36–37). In a similar manner as Gaard with her concept of “mammal mothers”, Adams operates with the biologist concept of “females”, understanding “motherhood” primarily as a natural and not social category.

The ecofeminist arguments highlighting the connection between human mothers and cows might be viewed as ethically valuable, for they take the suffering of cows seriously as a feminist question. I agree that the exploitation of cows and calves in the milk industry should gain more critical analysis in feminist discussions of nursing, as should also the different forms of milk colonialism as Gaard reminds us. These ecofeminist accounts of milk are thus important as they expose and problematise the anthropocentric and colonialist assumptions and practices regarding lactation. They also offer useful insights into understanding the ways in which misogynist cultural norms affect the normative legitimation of the violent treatment of cows and calves in the milk industry as well as the commercial consumption of animal flesh and milk.

It is my contention, however, that their notion of gender is highly problematic, since they understand it narrowly in terms of biological sex and, as a result, overlook the feminist critique of biological reductionism. Ignoring this critique has consequences on how they come to formulate the key concepts of their ecofeminist approaches to milk. Both of their accounts become anchored to the conceptual pairings of “mothers” and “mammal mothers” as well as “female animals” and “women”. To sum up my argument in this section, although Gaard and Adams’s ecofeminist accounts of milk offer useful insights into dismantling certain anthropocentric and colonialist frameworks of lactation, their approach ultimately ends up normalising rather than questioning the binary notion of gender understood as a natural category of “sex”.

3 Problematising the Lactating Body

One of the reasons behind the naturalisation of gender in ecofeminist accounts of nursing might be that lactation along with the mammary gland are generally taken as natural features marking the biological difference between the sexes, features that connect humans (and particularly females) to other mammals. Historically, it is indeed breastfeeding that has been utilised to distinguish the class of “mammals” along with the separate and binary categories of male and female. In Carolus Linnaeus’s (1758) taxonomic classification of animal species, the mammary gland is the defining feature of mammalia, a concept Linnaeus coined as part of his attempt to differentiate the class of animals covering humans, apes, ungulates, sloths, sea cows, elephants, bats and all other animals with hair, a four-chambered heart, and three ear bones.

Linnaeus’s classification was far from neutral, however. As an historian of science Londa Schiebinger (1993) argues, the taxonomy reflected certain political trends and questions of the time. According to Schiebinger, Linnaeus’s scientific interest in mammae was deeply informed by his strong opposition to wet nursing, a common practice in 18th century Europe.16 Wet nursing means that someone other than the birthing parent is nursing the baby, such as hired wet nurses. In Paris and Lyon, for example, families irrespective of their class status, sent up to 90 % of their children to wet nurses in the countryside during this era (Schiebinger 1993, 404). Whereas European families usually employed peasants for the task, in overseas colonies Indigenous women and especially women of African descent were forced to work as wet nurses to white settler and slave owner families, a violent practice that left their own infants malnourished (Schiebinger 1993, 402). Mirroring the prevalent expert and medical discourse of the time, Linnaeus—who himself was a practicing physician—believed that breastfeeding was the birthing mother’s natural task that wet nursing jeopardised (Schiebinger 1993, 405).

Another reason for the opposition to wet nursing was sentiments related to the hierarchical class system, most evidently, the fear of contamination between “lower” and “upper” classes. As Schiebinger notes, “Linneaus, for example, cautioned that the character of the (upper-class) child could easily be corrupted by the milk of (lower-class) wet nurses” (Schiebinger 1993, 407). The political opposition to wet nursing emerged in parallel to the strengthening of middle and upper-class women’s domestic role and the weakening of their public position. While wet nursing solved the challenges of child rearing for middle and upper-class families, it was soon realised that wet nursing was connected to high infant mortality.17 Declining population became a major problem for the French and other European governments as capitalist, colonialist, and military expansion required more labour power. The legal and social regulation of breastfeeding proved one of the central strategies to combat infant mortality. The aim of controlling breastfeeding and the use of wet nurses manifested in several laws of the time. The French National Convention, for example, ruled in 1793 that only (healthy) mothers who breastfed their children would be eligible for state aid; similarly, a 1794 Prussian law made it mandatory for all (healthy) mothers to breastfeed their infants (Schiebinger, 1993, 408).

In addition to legal reform, the regulation of breastfeeding also took highly normative and moralistic dimensions. Governments developed education programs and training targeting not only obstetricians and midwives but also, and importantly, mothers. To reinforce maternal duties, medical authorities published health and conduct manuals for mothers, for example. These normative discourses of nursing gained powerful momentum from the philosophical and popular belief of the time that “the laws of nature” also dictated social order. Unsurprisingly, then, many experts pleaded women to listen to their “animal instinct” to get them to breastfeed their own infants. This was true to Linnaeus as well.18 He claimed that mothers who left their infants to wet nurses barbarically violated the laws of nature. Unlike the unruly mothers who relegated breastfeeding to wet nurses, Linnaeus observed that even the most fearful of the beasts, such as the lion and the tiger “mothers”, gently nursed their young (Schiebinger 1993, 404–6). In other words, the political, legal, and expert discourse of the time pressurized and even forced birthing parents to breastfeed as it was understood as a necessary means to restore the natural order of things.19 A central means to achieve “the natural order of things” was to define breastfeeding as a natural task of women.

Naturalising breastfeeding as a main task of mothers thus became a central tool of population politics and the way through which middle and upper-class women were relocated back to their natural place in society, that is, the sphere of the home. Mother’s milk was construed as the foundation of a healthy relationship between mother and child and, by extension, of civil society. As Schiebinger notes, “Linnaeus thus followed well-established Western conceptions when he suggested that women belong to nature in ways that men do not” (Schiebinger 1993, 395). The political, scientific, and expert discourse of nursing thus normalised and legitimated women’s exclusion from public life by defining women as closer to nature than men, as the lactating prototype of mammals. As becomes clear from Schiebinger’s historical analysis of the cultural context of Linnaeus’s taxonomy, the racialised gender and class politics of the time shaped his concept of mammals in general and female mammals in particular. The naturalised notion of breastfeeding as the primary task of female mammals besides reproducing offspring reinforced the decline of women’s political position and rights in Europe at the turn of the 18th century.

Despite the efforts of naturalising breastfeeding as one of the definitive characters of women as female mammals, nursing is—as Schiebinger’s analysis demonstrates—eminently an historical and social practice. Although lactation is a physiological ability of certain bodies, social norms and understandings of gender, race, and class, for example, condition and regulate the ways in which nursing has been socially organised. Far from a neutral and natural practice, breastfeeding has been employed as a regulative mechanism to foster the population growth of white, heterosexual, and middle- and upper-class families in the 18th century Europe. From this vantage point, it is not surprising that although the political control of nursing is more subtle today as nursing is regulated mainly through national recommendations and instructions, the socio-economic background still affects breastfeeding. Population growth and health is rarely articulated as explicit reasons in encouraging certain families to choose nursing in Western countries. Yet, work life is often arranged so (e.g., paid family leave and/or making it possible for employees to express milk at workplace) that nursing remains an available option—even if limited—mostly to white families with higher income and education (see e.g., Heck et al 2006; Dodgson 2012; Smith 2018).

Returning to the ecofeminist approach to milk, then, I argue that building a feminist account of milk on the concept of “mammal mothers” and the conceptual pairing of “mothers” and “cow mothers” risks repeating the biologist assumptions of nursing cultivated in the discourses of mammalia and “the natural law” during the Enlightenment era. Relying on the naturalised categories of mammals and mammal mothers not only echoes age-old conceptualisations of women as closer to animals and nature than men, but it also excludes those who do not conform to the binary categorisation of sex, such as gender-diverse parents who nurse or chestfeed, including non-binary and trans parents. The use of gender essentialist language resurrects hetero- and cis-normative vocabulary as a conceptual basis for feminist theorisations of nursing and milk. Ecofeminists, such as Gaard and Adams, who defend the concept of “mammal mothers” resemble maternalist and gynocentric feminists, who emphasise the language of sexual difference and understand both pregnancy and nursing as the fundamental features of women’s embodied experience and thus key aspects of feminist politics (see e.g., Hausman 2004). The problem is not, to make clear, the feminist emphasis on pregnancy or nursing per se, but the conceptualisation of these topics exclusively in terms of womanhood, sexual difference, and the binary notion of gender. It must be stressed, though, that in certain branches of maternalist feminism or “feminist motherhood studies,” the recognition of gender diversity starts to be commonplace (see e.g., Green 2020; Joutseno 2021).

It is my contention that understanding nursing as a social practice allows us to build ecofeminist accounts of milk on the conceptual basis that both acknowledges and affirms gender diversity. Gender is a historical construct through which those who do not conform to cis- and heteronormative notions of bodies have been excluded from the ideal of what counts as a “normal” human (see e.g., Karhu 2022). Therefore, it is necessary for feminist theorisations of milk and nursing to resist the history of normalisation and pathologisation through which certain populations have been dictated as abnormal or “less-than-human,” to borrow Judith Butler’s term (see e.g., Butler 2004, 2). Whereas the political, medical, and legal recognition of gender diversity has slowly started to get ground, nursing is still seen as something that only cis-women who have recently given birth can do. The hegemonic assumption is, as Mathilde Cohen notes, that “only ‘mothers’ breastfeed, that is, only bio-mothers who use their own milk to nurse their children, leaving out […] not only male, transgender, and non-binary breastfeeders, but also cross-nursers or those using donor human milk” (Cohen 2017, 158).20 I would add also adoptive mothers, and adoptive trans or non-binary parents as well as non-birthing mothers/parents (including lesbian and trans mothers as well as nonbinary parents) as it is possible to induce milk production without having given birth.

While there are multiple medical and technological ways to support milk production for birthing or non-birthing parents, the biggest obstacles seem to be the strict cultural norms and negative attitudes towards those parents who wish to nurse but who do not fit the naturalised notion of what a nursing parent looks like.21 As Cohen points out, trans or non-binary parents who wish to nurse or chestfeed need to negotiate not only with the cultural assumption that only mothers (and only cis-mothers) breastfeed but also with the negative cultural construction of feminised bodily fluids, such as milk and menstrual blood, that are considered shameful and dirty when leaking through clothes and becoming visible (Cohen 2017, 157; see also Whiley et al. 2020). Chestfeeding and nursing by non-binary or trans parents can be seen as subversive practices, since they disrupt the hegemonic norms regarding gender, nursing, and parenting as well as the hierarchical order of masculinity and femininity (Cohen 2017, 157; see also Lee 2017; Lee 2018b; Lee 2019). While mothers who breastfeed publicly or for an “extended” time often face harassment or shaming (see e.g., Whiley et al 2020), it is important to bear in mind that for those who do not fit the normative notion of gender the consequences might be even more devastating as negative attitudes towards public nursing gets amplified through transphobia or antiqueer prejudices, for example. It is therefore not enough to provide gender-neutral lactation spaces or inclusive vocabulary; the norms of nursing need to be questioned in a much more profound way. Similarly, calling into question the anthropocentric norms of nursing does not go far enough. This was the problem with the ecofeminist accounts of milk I discussed in the second section. Formulating a feminist understanding of nursing and critique of the milk industry requires the problematisation of both anthropocentrism and hetero- and cis-normativity. Next, I will suggest an alternative theoretical and conceptual approach to developing an ecofeminist critique of the milk industry.

4 Biocapitalist Bovines

In contrast to the ecofeminist critique of the milk industry that is based on the concept of “mammal mothers”, I suggest that the starting point and object for such a critique should be the capitalist exploitation of the reproductive capacities of cows. Gaard herself implies this when she notes that “the industrialized dairy system is also a ‘free rider,’ profiting at the expense of the cows…” as it “extract[s] wealth from animal nature” (Gaard 2013, 603). Adams also points to this direction with her critical analysis of “feminised protein” that is extracted from cows by exploiting their production and reproduction. It is my contention that a feminist critique of capitalism offers a more promising avenue for formulating an ecofeminist argument against bovine milk production. Instead of forging an analogy between women and cows in terms of ethical or empathetic sisterhood, I argue that shifting the focus to the commodification of the reproductive capacities of animals and humans alike can avoid the pitfalls of biological reductionism.

The “free-riding” aspect of capitalism that Gaard mentions is one of the central objects of critique in the tradition of Marxist ecofeminism originating in the 1970s and 80s. Maria Mies (1986/1998), for example, argues that the birth of capitalism relied not only on the appropriation of surplus value generated by wage-labourers but also, and importantly, on the violent expropriation of women’s reproductive labour (e.g., child bearing and care work), nature’s production as well as the work in the colonies. According to Mies, these assets were naturalised and externalised so that they were viewed as “natural resources” freely and infinitely available for capital accumulation (Mies 1998, XI). Mies’s overall argument is that the process of expropriation is not just a phase in early capitalism, but a fundamental and structural part of capitalism in general (see also Fraser 2016).

Yet, as feminist philosopher Johanna Oksala (2018, 223) states, although Marxist ecofeminism offers us tools to understand the structural connection between gender oppression, colonialism, ecological destruction, and capitalism, its shortcoming is that it remains theoretically too abstract in its aim to bring together historically and geographically very complex and variegated set of phenomena. In my view, this holds true also to Gaard’s framework of postcolonial and feminist milk studies. In sum, it offers necessary insights into the multiple ways in which the global milk industry exploits humans and animals alike in a colonialist manner, but it risks remaining too vague, as I have already argued. Rejecting the monolithic understanding of capitalism, Oksala argues that Marxist ecofeminism needs to be updated to address some of capitalism’s, or more precisely biocapitalism’s, specific mechanisms today that “absor[b] both nature and women’s reproductive labor into its value circuits” (2018, 223). Biocapitalism refers to the commodification of life and to the extraction of surplus value from living beings or biological processes.22 Mushrooming biotechnology and life science companies is an example of the rapid expansion of biocapitalist markets today.

Oksala (2018, 223) identifies two different mechanisms of contemporary biocapitalism: “the commodification of nature as nature” and “the real subsumption of nature”. For Oksala, contemporary biocapitalism operates analogously in commodifying nature and reproductive labor done by women and gender minorities, and therefore ecofeminist critique should take these two mechanisms as its main target. While Oksala illustrates these mechanisms by examining the marketisation of carbon pollution, care work as well as the global fertility market, I contend that both mechanisms also provide important insights into problematising the expropriation of cows and their reproductive labour in the dairy industry. I argue that this extension to nonhuman animals is not only a possible but necessary extension of Oksala’s critique. Given the massive scale of the “food animal” industry globally, it is imperative that an ecofeminist critique of capitalism addresses the commodification of nonhuman animals as well. For the sake of my argument, I will summarise Oksala’s analysis of each mechanism, beginning with the “commodification of nature as nature”, and showing how they can be employed to analyse the dairy industry as well. Before delving deeper into analysing the mechanisms of capitalism, I want to emphasise that although Oksala uses the terms “woman” and “women” rather conventionally, her arguments are in my view still valid as her focus is on the capitalist exploitation of reproductive capacities and labour and not female bodies per se. When paraphrasing her work, I use therefore the expression of “women and gender minorities” to stress that in addition to women reproductive work is done also by people with nonnormative genders.

While early venture capitalism sought to discover new “virgin territories” to expropriate and “free-ride” costs, contemporary neoliberal capitalism has taken new forms as those kinds of “virgin territories” are not available in the same sense anymore. Consequently, as Oksala (2018, 224, see also Smith 2007) notes, “nature itself has become capitalised to an unprecedented extent” as a result of which “… a whole new range of ‘ecological commodities’ has been produced” such as carbon or pollution credits. In this process, nature is first produced as external and free resource to capitalist expropriation (e.g., manufacturing that causes pollution), but then internalised into capitalist value circuits by giving it exchange value (e.g., carbon credits). As Oksala (2018, 224) explains: “Hence, we can identify a twin movement: capital externalizes costs—for example, by emitting pollution—which provides opportunities for capital accumulation through mechanisms of internalization by other firms (or sometimes even the same firms) in the form of pollution trading, for example”. This raises a set of ecological and philosophical problems.

First, many functions of biocapitalism are still based on the practice of free-riding on nature as it externalises costs. Second, “the attempt to protect the environment by turning it into an internal part of capitalist markets” faces two interrelated problems as well (Oksala 2018, 224). Economically, it is difficult to turn the environment and complex ecosystems—including air quality, certain species of plants, or temperature, for example—into distinct goods and services that commodification process requires, as it is equally challenging to assign proper economic prices to them (Oksala 2018, 225; see also Foster 2002, 27–28). But as Oksala emphasises, the most serious problem in the “commodification of nature as nature” is philosophical. Nature’s internalisation into capitalist markets and the ensuing monetisation of it omits the question of ethical values.

Oksala’s example here is the government discussions of bioenergy and carbon sinks. Many EU countries seek to meet the EU’s climate and energy targets by investing in bioenergy. As it is based on extensive logging, the debate has revolved around the issue of whether the production of bioenergy boosts or diminishes forests as carbon sinks. The claim favored by many governments of those countries with strong logging industry, such as Finland and Sweden, is that replacing old-growth forests by younger, faster-growing and intensively cultivated forests will strengthen them as carbon sinks. Yet, as Oksala points out, “Irrespective of whether this claim is true or not, what the example should make clear is that in such a framework, the fact that forests are old and ecologically diverse has no value.” (Oksala 2018, 225). The elimination of old forests is thus framed as environmental protection, for carbon sinks can be commodified into carbon credits and offsets (that enable companies to keep polluting as emissions are “compensated”). Paradoxically, then, the market mechanisms that should protect the environment only worsens biodiversity loss (Oksala 2018, 225).

Oksala argues that an analogous logic of commodification can be found in the way that reproductive labour and care work done mostly by women and gender minorities are internalised into capitalist markets as part of the fast neoliberalisation of our economies (2018, 225). The issue is thus not only that women are assumed to do reproductive and care work for free in the private sphere (on which capitalism “free-rides”), but also the internalisation of care work within the capitalist system by generating new private markets for it. One of the problems in this new form of commodification is the unequal “global care chains”.23 As Oksala (2018, 226) notes, “This has resulted in new forms of gender oppression, as it is often poor immigrant women from ethnic minorities who now end up providing the commodified care services” that are physically and emotionally exhausting and requires the workers to leave their families and native countries. This work includes for instance forms of domestic or institutional labour and care for children, the sick, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Another problem is that care work is systematically underpaid. This has led to “the crisis of care”, referring to “the lack of sufficient numbers of qualified care-workers who actually care” (Oksala 2018, 228). Commodification of care work has not, in other words, solved the problem of gender division of labour in private or public spheres but created “feminized service economy” as a new form of gender oppression marked by classist and racist hierarchies. Or, as Oksala (2018, 228) sums up: “When reproductive work is not commodified, we have the free-riding problem; when it is turned into paid services, we face the crisis of care”.

Now, when brought to the framework of the milk industry the mechanism of commodification explained above can be employed to examine the ways in which capitalism commodifies cows and their reproductive labour. As Kathryn Gillespie (2021, 281) points out, cows are particularly apt example of commodification as “the word cattle has its root in chattel (property)”. In a similar way as in the early capitalism, the milk industry externalises costs by extracting24 wealth from animal labour (and from undercompensated human labour). Cows are understood as a natural resource that can be freely used to produce use value (such as milk and flesh) for consumption and thus to the accumulation of surplus value. Animals, of course, are not workers in the sense of wage labourers as they do not get any compensation for their work besides minimum, often squalid, upkeep. Rather, in the capitalist system, “food” animals are used as means of production and treated as property (see e.g., Stache 2020). Or, as Bob Torres (2007, 40) puts it: “(t)he bodies and functions of animals have been completely appropriated by capital, and, subsequently, put to use in a single way only, subordinating the total animal being to this single productive activity”.

Indeed, animals are commodified equivalent to Oksala’s description of “the commodification of nature as nature”. Cows in the dairy industry are not only used as a natural resource but their whole bodies and parts of them are commodified through and through. As Gillespie (2021, 282) explains, “To prompt this milk production, cows must give birth regularly, and so they are artificially inseminated annually, gestate for nine months, their calves are removed immediately after birth, and they are milked for 300 days out of every year”. A cow gives birth to 1 to 5 calves, after which they are considered “spent” (Gillespie 2021, 283). Once cows become too exhausted from constant pregnancies and milk suction, they are sold to meat and leather companies to be killed and commodified as flesh products for the meat industry. Those body parts that cannot be used in the meat and leather industry are sold to rendering companies that manufacture fertilisers, glue, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals, for example. While the natural lifespan of a cow is 15–20 years, bovines used for milk production are commonly killed already at the age of four to five.

The highly industrialised capitalist food system thus controls the whole lives of the cows from birth to their killing. During their short life, cows’ reproductive labour, their milk, and calves are appropriated for profit as “free” natural resources, and after death, the killed bodies of cows and body parts are once again internalised into the capitalist circuits of valorisation. Some estimates put the size of the global commodification of “food” animals at several billions annually; the world’s largest meat and dairy company (JBS) alone profited 50$ billion US dollars in 2020.25 Since the bodies of cows are thoroughly commodified, merely advancing animal welfare laws, for example, does not solve the core problem of commodification. Neither does addressing the cultural or hormonal connections between “mammal mothers”. Therefore, I contend that an ecofeminist critique of the dairy industry should take capitalism as its main target by posing critical questions regarding the definition of cows and their reproductive capacities not only as property but also as material resources “freely” available for capital accumulation—indeed, as bodies that can be freely produced, reproduced, used, and then killed for profit.

The other mechanism of contemporary capitalism Oksala identifies is “the real subsumption of nature”,26 which refers to the manipulation and intensification of biological productivity that aims to make natural assets more profitable for commercial exploitation (2018, 227). The real subsumption of nature thus allows companies to extract “natural resources” irrespective of natural production cycles. The aim of modifying biophysical processes is to enhance biological productivity and thus accumulation of capital. Combined with the fast development of biotechnological innovations, the real subsumption of nature has afforded unprecedented opportunities to capitalist expansion (Oksala 2018, 228). Oksala gives two examples that illustrate these aspects of contemporary biocapitalism: the forestry industry and the commodification of assisted reproductive technologies (ART s). While early capitalism was defined by extensive logging of old-growth forests and the subsequent deforestation, “today firms and state agencies aim to intervene in the biological basis of forest growth” (Oksala 2018, 227). The industry thus relies on the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, manual and mechanical planting of trees, and manipulation of genetic material, for example. I have already addressed the ecological problems of today’s plantation forestry, so suffice it here to reiterate that biotechnologies are used to increase profits, not biodiversity.

A similar logic can be found in the global fertility market. As Oksala maintains, the emergence of ART s has offered new ways to exploit “reproductive labor due to the ability of these technologies to alter radically the biological process of human reproduction” (2018, 228). Given the development of ART s, it is now possible to implant an embryo into the womb of a surrogate. This process is organised more and more through market intermediaries who control the access to gametes and hire surrogates. The private clinics will prepare the uterine lining of the surrogates for the embryo transfer, which “involves lengthy medical procedures and complex drug regimes” (Oksala 2018, 228). I want to emphasise that the problem is not the ART s themselves. It must be acknowledged that these technologies have significantly advanced the options for LGBTIQ+ people, for example, to reproduce beyond the heteronormative framework. Rather, the problem is the capitalist appropriation of these technologies and the bodily capacities of women and those gender minorities who possess the reproductive system required for gestation. The issue is thus not the technology itself but the commodification of it. As Oksala (2018, 229) argues, “gestational surrogacy can be viewed analogously to the real subsumption of nature by capital: capital is able to take hold of and transform biological reproduction and use it as a source of the creation of new markets and of new forms of capital accumulation”.

The feminist problem with surrogacy markets is that capitalism externalises risks of the medical processes, pregnancies, and deliveries to surrogates (and infants), who often belong to poor, oppressed, and otherwise vulnerable groups (Oksala 2018, 229–30). The markets are booming in countries, where surrogacy companies are not regulated, such as Ukraine. Before the war in Ukraine, the country held over a quarter of the global surrogacy market due to the lack of government regulation, even though there were rising concerns over human rights violations, such as the abuse of surrogates as well as the abandonment and trafficking of children (Lamberton 2020).27

I argue that a similar logic of “the real subsumption of nature” can be found from the dairy industry. In addition to the internalisation of cows into capitalist markets as living and finally as dead bodies and body parts, the commodification of bovines takes on another specific form in today’s biocapitalism. As many critical animal studies scholars have noted, dairy producers today employ the newest biotechnological innovations to manipulate and transform the biophysical features of bovine animals to extend the productivity and maximise profitability of their bodies when they still are alive (see e.g., Gillespie 2014; Gillespie 2018; Lonkila 2017; Twine 2010). The fact that milk products are vastly available today around the year is the result of manipulating the reproduction cycle of cows. The milk industry today utilises different biotechnological innovations to increase productivity, ranging from genetic breeding,28 antibiotics, high-volume milking machines, genetically engineered bovine growth hormones (e.g., recombinant bovine somatotropin, rBST), and artificial insemination to embryo transfer technologies, the latter being the next big step in the dairy industry.

As the representative of a company providing biotechnological innovations for the milk industry explains: “Embryo transfer (ET) is one option that can increase a cow’s reproductive efficiency, allowing her to have numerous calves per year. While the average cow produces six to seven calves in her lifetime, ET can increase her reproductive efficiency to numerous calves per year—allowing breeders to multiply the success of their superior pedigrees” (Sara Kober cited in Gillespie 2018, 169–170). As these examples demonstrate, contemporary biocapitalism exploits cows not only by a complete commodification of their living and killed bodies, but also by transforming and manipulating their reproductive capacities by pushing them to extreme limits to maximise productivity. As a result, the cows—not the companies—are shouldering the risks: during their short lives, they are increasingly vulnerable to many painful health problems including recurrent mastitis, hoof infections, emotional distress, lameness, and compromised mobility.

I contend that a fundamental part of the biocapitalist workings of today’s dairy production is the gendering of the reproductive capacities of bovine animals and the commodification of them. As Gillespie states, the milk industry “frame[s] animals through a binary understanding of sex and gender, categorizing them as being female or male and as reproductively viable or not” (Gillespie 2018, 177). The gendering of bovines based on their reproductive capacities is evident in the vocabulary used to describe them: a cow refers to an animal who has given birth to at least one calf, a heifer is defined as a female who has not yet given birth, a steer refers to a castrated male, and bull to an intact adult male (Gillespie 2018, 8). Whereas calves defined as male are removed after birth to be sold to veal or beef production (even day-old calves), calves defined a female are either “raised on the same farm where they were born or moved to another farm until they reach reproductive maturity” (Gillespie 2018, 198). If cows defined as females are sterile or if their milk production or fertility declines, they are slaughtered (Gillespie 2018, 177). The gendering of these animals has thus consequences on the ways in which each animal is commodified as well as on the ways in which the industry controls and manipulates the reproductive systems of bovines.

If the concept of “mammal motherhood” is taken for granted as a conceptual tool in outlining an ecofeminist critique of the dairy industry, the risk is that—in addition to the problems I have discussed earlier in this chapter—the gendering effects on all the calves born within the confines of the industry gets omitted. As Gillespie notes, those calves defined as males are often deemed superfluous: their economic value for the industry is low (Gillespie 2021, 282). If they are not immediately killed as “waste” or raised 4–6 months for veal, a few are selected as breeding bulls for semen production, “where they are forcibly ejaculated by artificial vagina or electro-ejaculator” to extract profit from their bodies (Gillespie 2021, 283).29 The latest development in the industry makes it even possible to produce “sex-specific” semen as a commodity, an effort to eliminate the birth of useless “male” calves and to increase the number of calves with suitable reproductive organs to be utilised for milk production (Gillespie 2021, 283).

Gendering plays thus a crucial role in the construction of bovines as commodity: not only their function as “labourers” in the industry but also the ability of their bodies to extract profit gets determined based on their reproductive capacities. In other words, bovines in the dairy industry are naturalised and commodified both as constantly lactating mammals and raw material to be appropriated and manipulated for capital accumulation.

5 Conclusion: Towards an Ecofeminist Critique of Biocapitalism

Recent ecofeminist discussions of milk production have importantly questioned the anthropocentric framework of most feminist accounts of milk and nursing, thus expanding the analysis of lactation to cover also other mammals than merely “human mothers”. Ecofeminist approaches to milk, such as Gaard’s “feminist postcolonial milk studies” and Adams’s account of non-speciesist sisterhood, have thus been able to expose and question the oppression of “other” mammal mothers in the dairy industry, for example. As I have showed in my article, turning to the vocabulary of mammals is not unproblematic, however. The analogy of cows and human mothers as “mammal mothers” has been so commonplace in ecofeminist discussions of milk that it is difficult to find any analyses of dairy production that does not employ it. I argue that the vocabulary of mammals as the basis of ecofeminist milk studies reproduces naturalised notions of women as closer to animals than men. The naturalisation of breastfeeding in this sense is problematic for three reasons.

First, it draws a simplified and abstract parallel between women and animals and, in turn, conceptualises women based on their capacity to breastfeed. Historically, the definition of women in terms of their reproductive capacities has operated as a way of excluding them (and other feminised groups) from the public sphere and barring their political participation. Second, the concept of “mammal mothers” reinforces biologist notions of gender interpreted as “sex”. Understanding breastfeeding as something that only “mammal mothers” can do not only exclude those who do not conform to the binary notion of gender but also falls prey to reducing complex social and historical practices, such as parenting and infant feeding, solely to biology. Third, building a feminist critique of the milk industry on the biologist notions of sex ignores the ways in which the milk industry itself produces commodified notions of binary gender. It is exactly the gendering aspects of commodification and biotechnological engineering on which the biocapitalist exploitation of bovine bodies rest today.

Instead of “mammal mothers”, I suggest that ecofeminist critique of the milk industry should take as its starting point a feminist critique of capitalism. By shifting the focus from “mammal motherhood” to the problematisation of biocapitalism, I critically build upon the previous ecofeminist approaches to milk. In particular, Gaard’s feminist and postcolonial approach to milk and Adams’s account of the exploitation of cow’s reproductive capacities offer budding efforts to formulate an ecofeminist notion of milk in terms of a critique of capitalism. Updating their central concepts and theoretical frameworks, I suggest that the focus should be more clearly on the different mechanisms of commodification that the milk industry involves today rather than the shared motherhood between women and cows. This makes it possible to expose the oppressive logics of contemporary biocapitalism, most importantly, the way in which the reproductive capacities of both humans and animals are appropriated for capitalist accumulation. In this sense, also “feminist postcolonial milk studies” becomes highlighted as a critique of capitalism, an economic and normative system on which most of the colonialist practices of the industry continue to rely.

Although it now starts to be customary in feminist theory to question the human/animal divide, the dismantling of the dichotomy does not itself lead to any radical notions of humanity or animality, let alone notions of equality or justice between humans and nonhuman animals. The reason for this is that these concepts are not universal and stable but historically, politically, and culturally constituted. Therefore, the critique of the dualism must consider how “the human” and “the animal” are normatively and politically produced and regulated in specific historical contexts.30 For the same reason, drawing a parallel between women and cows is therefore not enough in exposing the specific mechanisms of exploitation in today’s dairy production. It is for this reason that I suggest a feminist critique of biocapitalism as a theoretical ground on which to begin to theorise an ecofeminist critique of the milk industry and the question of milk more broadly.

Scrutinising the contemporary mechanisms of biocapitalism enables ecofeminists to start asking radical questions on the limits of commodification (Oksala 2018, 230; Gillespie 2021, 292). Questioning the taken-for-granted status of contemporary capitalism opens more space for philosophical ecofeminist imagination, one that takes seriously the violent treatment of nonhumans as a feminist question but avoids the pitfalls of biologism. Resisting the oppression and commodification of the bodies that can reproduce, breastfeed, chestfeed, or lactate might bring about alternative understandings of our interdependent relations beyond the species line, throwing solidarity and nonviolence into sharp relief as the central values of ecofeminism.


The contemporary discussions of breastfeeding deal with such topics as the negative perception of public nursing (e.g., Woollard 2019; Whiley et al. 2019), the difficulties in balancing breastfeeding and work life (Lee 2018a; Boyer 2014), the cultural and historical discourses of breastfeeding (Hausman 2003; McCaughey, 2010; Formis 2016), the economic undervaluation of breastmilk (e.g., Smith 2017) as well as women’s different experiences of breastfeeding depending on socio-economic and cultural background (Smith & al 2012).


I use the term “trans” as an umbrella term that covers a diverse array of experiences and identities (e.g., non-binary persons, trans women, trans men, genderqueer and two spirit persons) that are distinct from cis-gender experiences and identities (those whose gender identity correspond to the gender assigned at birth).


For a feminist postcolonial critique of the intersectional framework, see Deckha (2012).


“Animal colonialism” can be understood as an aspect of ecological imperialism. Cohen (2020, 37) defines it as follows: “Animal colonialism can be defined as a dual phenomenon, consisting, on the one hand, in using animals to colonise lands, native animals, and people and, on the other hand, in imposing foreign legal norms and practices of human-animal relations upon communities and their environments”. For more on animal colonialism from the perspective of critical animal studies, see e.g., Struthers Montford and Taylor (2020).


Cohen (2020) also mentions “breastfeeding colonialism” by which she refers to the ways in which breastfeeding was regulated and controlled in the colonies. Hunt (1988), for example, examines the regulation of breastfeeding in Belgian Congo, where prolonged breastfeeding (a “natural” form of birth control as it prevents ovulation) was seen as a problem as it stalled population growth; enhancing the fertility of local women was understood as the solution to the growing need of labour power in the colonies. For an analysis of the cultural interconnections between milk, Whiteness, and the histories of racism and colonialism, see also, e.g., for example, Stanescu (2018).


The “success story” of Amul corporation is linked to Nestle’s notorious powdered milk and infant food marketing campaigns in India and Africa. After the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a code against the advertisement of breastmilk substitutes in 1981, Nestle’s campaigns came to an end. As mothers had no access to clean water or sterile bottles, the use of the substitutes instead of breastmilk caused diarrhea, malnutrition, and death. In India, Amul took over Nestle’s lost baby food markets (Gaard 2013, 604).


For more on the critique of settler-colonialism in relation to critical animal studies, see, e.g., Belcourt (2020).


After the publication of Gaard’s article, “feminist postcolonial milk studies” has started to appear as a budding research topic, see e.g., Cohen (2020) and Narayanan (2019).


Gaard dedicates a whole section in her article to describing the function of oxytocin in the act of nursing and the mother-child symbiosis. She calls oxytocin as “the biological foundation of the mammal mother” (Gaard 2013, 610).


For a compelling historical analysis, see e.g., Cohen (2017), who compares the legal regulation of human and animal milk as well as the social regulation of lactating “mothers” and “cows” in French and the USA. Although also she relies on the categories of “female” humans and animals, she recognises that lactation is possible also for trans and nonbinary parents, for example.


Gaard (2011) argues that post-structuralist feminists often wrongly reduced the diverse body of literature published under the title of “ecofeminism” to the gynocentric approach, thus making the whole scholarly endeavour appear as essentialist and thus something to be avoided. According to Gaard, this kind of strawman version of ecofeminism partly explains why ecofeminism was long neglected or even scorned in the academic feminism.


For more on the theorical commitments of gynocentric ecofeminist scholars regarding “gender”, see, e.g., Kuura Irni’s chapter in this book.


For a sustained exploration of the feminist care tradition in animal ethics, see, e.g., Donovan and Adams (2007).


Wet nursing began as early as 2000 BC and continued as a common practice until the political control of it along with the invention of the feeding bottle and bovine milk formula in the 19th century (see e.g., Stevens et al. 2009).


Due to economic pressures, wet nurses often took on more nurslings than they were able to feed sufficiently. While the children sent for wet nursing were often treated inadequately, also the infants of wet nurses were regularly neglected, resulting in malnourishment and death (Fildes 1988, 193).


Likewise, one of the era’s most prominent philosophers of natural order, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, defended the view that mothers who refused to nurse violated natural laws and thus threatened the moral order of nations. See Rousseau (2010).


Like wet-nursing, bottle-feeding gave rise to similar moralistic debates, see e.g., Obladen (2014).


For more on milk sharing as a feminist question, see, e.g., Carter and Reyes-Foster (2020).


Another predominant naturalised assumption of nursing is that it happens easily, naturally, and without pain (McCaughey 2010). Yet nursing—including nursing by birthing parents—often requires different kinds of medical and technological assistance, including breastfeeding counselling and peer support, manual or electric breast bumping equipment, feeding bottles, syringes, supplemental nursing system (SNS), supplemental feeding, donor milk and medication (e.g., for inducing milk; for the pain during the first days or weeks of nursing; or for blocked milk ducts or mastitis).


For more on the theorisation of biocapitalism and its links to neoliberalism, see, e.g., Peters & Venkatesan (2010).


The concept was first coined by Arlie Hochschild (2000).


The industry is also “free-riding” in the sense that it does not provide any compensation for the environmental devastation it causes (see e.g., Smith 2017, 125).


The concept draws on a new, ecological interpretation of Marx’s notions of formal and real subsumption of labour. For more on this interpretation, see e.g., Boyd et al. (2001).


As journalists have documented, the war has made the situation even worse, see e.g., Dominus (2022).


For more on the commodification of genetic breeding of dairy cows, see, e.g., Lonkila (2017).


For more on artificial insemination in terms of sexual violence and moral panic around animal “sex”, see, e.g., Marianna Szczygielska and Agata Kowalewska’s chapter in this book.


I want to thank Johanna Oksala for emphasising this point in one of our discussions of animal philosophy.


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