Editor’s note: Some names in this article have been changed.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia — I am in a clinic where local women sell their breast milk, which up until recently was then shipped to the United States for consumption.
Chanda is sitting at a table, breastfeeding her infant. She looks tired and uncomfortable. Chanda’s baby—a gorgeous little thing with a mass of black, shiny hair and huge inquisitive eyes—has been suckling for well over an hour, in between bouts of crying.
The baby appears hungry, despite her efforts to nourish herself. Sitting on the table in front of the baby is a container full of a magnolia-colored liquid, which will soon be transferred to a sterile bag and stored in a freezer. Chanda is sitting alongside five other women who are expressing their milk into plastic containers. The women make 50 cents an ounce. Until recently, their milk was sold for up to eight times that amount in the U.S to women unable to breast-feed their own babies. At least, that is what the Cambodian women were told by the brokers who combed neighborhoods looking for pregnant or nursing women to sell their milk. In reality, it was also purchased by parents of surrogate babies and fitness freaks who believe the hype about breast milk being a “superfood,” among other groups willing to pay for a product known as “liquid gold” on the commercial market.
In recent years, breast milk has become the only human secretion sold on the mainstream food and beverage market. In the U.K., breast milk ice cream has been on sale since 2011, and in the U.S., a lollypop company sells breast milk-flavored candy. In Britain, former model Josie Cunningham sold her breast milk online at way above the market price, as she appeared to be targeting fetishists. Her rates are $2.50 an ounce to new mothers and roughly $12.50 an ounce to “male milk-fetishists.” Cunningham says she expects to make $375 a day from her breast milk.
Selling breast milk is nothing new, but Utah-based Ambrosia Labs, which runs the clinic in Phnom Pehn where I met Chanda and her baby, claims to be the first company to have imported human breast milk to the U.S. from overseas.
Expressing milk can be painful and difficult, despite the hype from the “breastapo”—those who argue that every woman should be able to easily provide breast milk for her child and never resort to formula. It can cause clogged milk ducts (causing hard lumps to form in the breast), mastitis (which brings on flu-like symptoms and painful breasts) and thrush (which results in itchy, burning and/or cracked nipples and shooting pains in the breast during feedings). Expressing milk for hours a day can leave women exhausted and lethargic.
The Phnom Penh clinic is in the Stung Meanchey district, close to the area best known as the city’s former landfill.
On my way to the clinic, I stop at the residential area by a huge landfill. My tuk tuk—a mechanized three-wheeled taxi—struggled along a dirt road littered with foul-smelling garbage and the occasional dead animal. Men chopped wood in makeshift workshops, while women and children collected items from the rubble. The women earn a few cents a day gathering trash. None wore gloves or any other protective clothing, despite the fact that glass, pieces of sharp metal, rotting food and other dangerous substances seemed to make up the majority of the waste.
Stung Meanchey is home to the most neglected families, and the place of last resort for homeless families. The people who live in this district are beyond impoverished. Many are burdened with crippling debt and are often ill and/or addicted. The vast majority move to Stung Meanchey from the rural areas, with two-thirds owing substantial amounts of money to unscrupulous loan sharks, having fallen ill and unable to work.
“Community lenders,” as the sharks are known, charge between 10 percent and 20 percent interest monthly on their loans. This means that a $250 loan accumulates interest payments of $1.25 every day, leaving borrowers without much hope of ever paying the original debt. Being debt-bonded means being desperate.
With high birthrates, the concentration of the very poor and many who need to earn quick money, there is no better place for profiteers to offer impoverished women money for breast milk.
I stop near some corrugated iron shacks inhabited by large families, most of whose members are sitting on makeshift stools outside the cramped-looking interiors. I ask passers-by if they have heard of Ambrosia Labs. They shake their heads, until I explain that I am referring to the breast milk clinic, at which point they all nod. Ambrosia Labs is registered as “Mother Gratefulness,” or Kun Meada in Khmer.
One woman told me that a broker had approached her when she was heavily pregnant and asked if she would like to make a profit from her “excess milk.” With the help of a translator, I asked the woman how she felt about being asked to sell her breast milk. “This is my first child, and I had no idea that we have extra milk that we don’t need [something the women are told by the brokers]. Of course I wanted to do this, because I haven’t got any other way of making money, and it will mean that I will be able to eat and stay healthy while I feed my baby.”
On my arrival at the clinic, I am met by a young Cambodian woman who introduces herself as the manager. I had telephoned the clinic earlier, asking for a tour and an interview with the owners, explaining that I was writing an article on the increasing popularity of commercial breast milk. The woman, who is carrying her own baby, shows me upstairs to the “pumping room.” The room is airless, and a long line of women sit with babies on their laps, or toddlers crawling around their feet, while tubes attached to their nipples draw the milk into plastic jugs. When the jugs are full, they are collected by a woman in a white apron and transferred into plastic bags. The bags are sealed, labeled and placed in one of the large freezers in the kitchen area on the ground floor.
Ambrosia Labs was founded in 2015 by three Americans from Utah: Bronzson Woods, his father, Lamond Woods, and Bronzson’s friend, Ryan Newell. “Bronzson was here as a missionary and fell for the place,” Lamond says.
Lamond, who describes himself in an email as “head cheerleader” of Ambrosia Labs, is an affable, energetic man. I introduced myself as a reporter from the U.K. with an interest in “women’s issues,” and he immediately began to tell me how the breast milk business is a “saving grace,” not just for Cambodian women, but for any woman who is unable or unwilling to breast-feed her own baby.
“Ambrosia is Greek and means nectar of the gods,” Lamond told me during my visit to the clinic. “Do you have any tips as to how we persuade people [that] we are a good thing? We do not want to shut down,” he says, explaining that the Ministry of Health is refusing to grant permission for the clinic to continue to export breast milk out of Cambodia. “What we’re doing now is just a glimpse of the good we can do.”
The women expressing milk tell me that they were recruited by staff at the clinic to “donate” their milk for 50 cents an ounce. I notice that the clinic’s website advertises the rates at 50 cents to $1 per ounce, but according to the women, they have never received more than the minimum rate.
The women arrive at the clinic before 8 a.m. and express milk for three hours. After a two-hour break, they resume for another three hours. They work six days a week, with Sundays off.
Their alternatives to selling breast milk is collecting and recycling garbage, or the garment factory. Neither job would earn them as much as the $10 to $13 a day they can make from selling milk. The women tell me they are primarily doing this job for the money, but also because it might help other women who are unable to breast-feed. “I think of the children my milk is helping and wonder if they will grow up big and strong,” one woman says. No one has told the women that breast milk fetishists and bodybuilders may be consuming their precious body fluids.
There are obvious similarities between the breast milk and surrogacy trades. The surrogacy trade is rife in Cambodia, and feminists and other human rights campaigners have been pressuring the government to clamp down on the baby market.
My fixer, a local journalist named Kalliyan, tells me about the surrogacy trade in the poor areas of Phnom Penh, and I realize the recruitment process and targeting of desperate, impoverished women is the same as that for breast milk.
“They have a broker who lives in the community who approaches families that are really poor and where there is a pregnant woman,” Kalliyan says. “They go to the house to convince the family. They get a lot of money from that, about $7,000 to $10,000. A poor woman could not have this amount of money.”
I ask Ryan Newall, one of the founders of Ambrosia Labs, if they are looking to tap into the surrogacy market in the search for excess breast milk. After all, when the surrogate gives up the child she has been carrying, she will be lactating. “Yes, we want to do that,” he says. “The surrogacy market is booming here, although the government looks like it is clamping down on that market too, which is probably a good thing,” he adds.
“Selling breast milk is an opportunity to help two sections of people,” Newall says. “All those mothers who are risking their child’s lives by buying [breast milk] online, and at the same time, helping a developing country like Cambodia. They need good jobs and they need to feed their kids.”
The day after my visit to Ambrosia Labs, I met with Ros Sopheap, executive director of the nongovernmental organization Gender and Development for Cambodia. She looked appalled when I told her about my visit to the clinic. According to Sopheap, the industry “is against everything women are trying to change in terms of inequality and human rights abuses.”
It is also thought to be dangerous to export breast milk. In a 2015 peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine entitled “More than a lucrative liquid: the risks for adult consumers of human breast milk bought from the online market,” the authors found that “[c]hemical and environmental contaminants are known to make their way into breast milk, just like the food chain more broadly.”
Recalling the baby at the clinic who appeared unable to satisfy her hunger while feeding, I asked Newall by email what measures his company put in place to ensure the women’s own babies are not deprived of milk in order to feed infants of well-off Westerners. His answer: “We do not employ any brokers. We have put protective measures in place so that our employees’ children do not go hungry as a result of our business.”
During my visit to Ambrosia Labs, Lamond Woods gave me access to a document he was preparing to send to the government, in response to the Ministry of Health’s refusal to grant permission for the clinic to export the milk to the U.S. The document is peppered with claims that the business is in line with, and indeed assisting, the efforts of the international community and the Cambodian anti-poverty nongovernmental organizations to aid the well-being of mothers and their children and eradicate malnutrition.
“Our Cambodian sisters have [pleaded] that we not allow this business to be shut down,” the document says. “Because of them and for our wives and our children we will not be broken.” The tactics of the breast milk, surrogacy and prostitution brokers have one key theme in common: They present themselves and their trade as altruistic services, rather than as exploitation and abuse.
On my return to the U.K., I emailed Ambrosia Labs to give its founders an opportunity to refute my claims that the breast milk trade in general, and their clinic in particular, trades on vulnerability and exploitation purely for profit.
“We offer mothers employment they wouldn’t otherwise have in favorable, clean, and safe conditions. Our employees have found our clinics preferable to other available employment. … Our business practices provide Cambodian women an alternative source of income while allowing them to work less and take care of their families,” Newall wrote in response. “Our business also provides a safe source of donor milk for infants in need.”
Days after I left Cambodia, the clinic ceased trade, and a week later the government suspended the trade and exportation of breast milk. The order from the government to the health ministry reads, “Although Cambodia is poor and [life is] difficult, it is not at the level that it will sell breast milk from mothers.”
What the trade in breast milk tells us is that capitalism has come full circle in a way it has never done before, not even with the prostitution market. The base-line purpose of commerce is to feed our children, but the price of this trade demands that children not be fed in the first place.
The trade in breast milk commodifies the unique bond between a mother and child. Profit is being made from a source of nourishment that even impoverished women have access to. Unless, of course, exploiters decide to put a price on it. The milk trade is a market in hunger and misery.
Mothers who are vulnerable to breast milk brokers need to be given financial opportunities to pay their bills without taking food out of their own children’s mouths. They need to be afforded dignity and given nutritious food for themselves and their families. No woman alive would sell food meant for her baby if she had an alternative.
Julie Bindel is a journalist, author, broadcaster and researcher. Since 1979, she has been active in the global campaign to end violence toward women and children.