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The Industrialization of Farming and Childbirth

by Michel Odent(more info)

listed in women's health, originally published in issue 86 - March 2003

There are striking similarities between the industrialization of farming and the industrialization of childbirth, two phenomena that developed side by side during the 20th century.[1] It is as if the domination of nature, which had been the basis of our civilizations for many millennia, had suddenly reached another order of magnitude. A threshold had been passed across.

Before Crossing the Threshold

Of course, the ancestors of modern farmers were already sharing the goals of intensification when they were simply clearing away competing vegetation so that the sun could reach the plants they wanted to cultivate, or when they were protecting their plants and animals by guarding and fencing, or when they were learning to use such tools as axes, pointed sticks, ropes and knives. There have been more determinant steps in the process of intensification, such as the use of oxen for ploughing. But what we call industrialized farming is a 20th century phenomenon.

In the same way, all known human societies have had reasons to interfere with birth physiology since time immemorial. The most rudimentary tools have been beliefs and rituals. These tools are particularly effective at disturbing the phase of labour between the birth of the baby and the delivery of the placenta. For example, the cross-cultural belief that colostrum (the first milk after birth) is tainted or harmful implies that the newborn baby must be immediately taken away from the mother. The effect of this is to challenge the mammalian maternal protective and aggressive instinct. Such a belief cannot be dissociated from a ritual, which is to rush to cut the cord before the delivery of the placenta. This is usually the role of a birth attendant.

Assembyline babies

The concept of the birth attendant is probably more recent than one commonly believes. Films among the Eipos in New Guinea, and written documents about pre-agricultural societies, suggest that there was a phase in the history of humanity when women used to isolate themselves when giving birth. Even more than for the other apes, privacy is a basic need for women giving birth. One must keep in mind the primary handicap of human beings in such circumstances. It is the enormous development of a part of the brain (the neocortex) that tends to inhibit the activity of more primitive brain structures. When one feels observed, the neocortex (the brain of the intellect) cannot take a back seat. It probably occurred occasionally that a young woman in the bush was calling her mummy for help at the last minute. This is the root of midwifery. A midwife is originally a mother-figure.

The advent of the birth attendant induced a vicious circle. The birth attendant interferes with the need for privacy and therefore tends to make the birth more difficult, so that there is a need for more help. In many societies, birth attendants have used traditional methods to actively influence the progress of labour: manipulating, kneading, even bouncing on the abdomen or dilating the cervix manually. The widespread tendency to deny the mammalian need for privacy has led to the socialization of childbirth. The invention of tools such as the forceps and the introduction of the medical man in the birthing place have been determinant steps in the history of childbirth. But what we call industrialized childbirth is also a 20th century phenomenon.

Explosive Developments

By the early 1900s, the beginning of the explosive development of industrialized farming became visible.

What has become the symbol of industrialized farming lasted in fact a whole century. Swift and Company, the Chicago meatpacker, was the first to mass-manufacture rendered protein and fat as animal feed as early as a century ago. The use of such feed really took off in countries such as Britain during the Second World War, when it became difficult to import vegetable feeds from abroad.

The progress of industrialized farming has been associated with a series of spectacular technological advances. Huge investments became necessary in order to take advantage of labour-saving machinery. This explains the need to concentrate such facilities as tractors, combine harvesters and crop processing machines in larger and larger farming units. Intensive farming was instrumental in the development of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, with the use of synthetic fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides, and also the treatment of animals with hormones, antibiotics and chemicals.

It is also by the early 1900s that the fast development of industrialized childbirth became visible, more so in the USA than in Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic, the primary phenomenon was the increased control of the birth process by doctors. In a country such as Britain, the Midwives Act, which received the Royal Assent in 1902 after historical controversies in medical journals and endless negotiations with the General Medical Council, established official links between midwifery and the medical profession. It institutionalized the subservient role of the midwife to the physician. At the same time, in America, the doctors had already gained a grip on the birth process and the status and role of the midwife were dwindling with equal rapidity. Midwifery was already associated with so-called 'ignorant, illiterate immigrant' women.

The industrialization of childbirth has also been associated with a series of spectacular technological advances. In the 1950s the modern technique of 'low segmental' caesarean section gradually replaced the classical one. This new surgical technique, associated with the advent of post-war methods of anaesthesiology, the organization of blood transfusion, the availability of plastic material making drips safe and the possible use of antibiotics, suddenly transformed the C-section into a reliable operation.

At the dawn of the 21st century, only gigantic maternity units can offer a service based on the presence of obstetricians, anaesthesiologists and paediatricians 24 hours a day. That is why, in Western Europe, the average number of births per day in many hospitals is ten or more, while on the American continent it can be above 20. Huge investments have often been necessary to design, build and equip large enough maternity units. These huge investments must also cover the costs of the sophisticated equipment necessary for modern prenatal care, particularly ultra-sound machines.

Concentration in large hospitals is not the only characteristic of industrialized childbirth. There is also a striking tendency towards standardization. 'Routine' and 'protocols' have become key words in obstetrics.


There are other similarities between industrialized farming and industrialized childbirth. One of them is that every new episode of their fast history has been welcomed enthusiastically.

The collective enthusiasm for industrialized farming has been understandable. Farmers have expressed their enthusiasm at different steps of the process of industrialization. In the past they regarded workers' wages as one of their heaviest financial burdens, so it was natural that they took an intense interest in machinery. Let us think of farmers raising cotton, for example. In the recent past, their main expenses were for weed control by hand labour. Overnight, herbicides reduced these costs dramatically. We can make similar comments regarding other aspects of agriculture in relation to the introduction of cheap and effective insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers. The benefits of industrialization appear still more spectacular when looking at particular aspects of animal breeding. Today, top 'milkers' give up three times more milk a day than a century ago, thanks to protein supplements that can be made from almost any organic material, including corn, soybeans and rendered animal by-products.

The advantages of selective breeding are also obvious. This means, for example, that while some cows are bred to produce as much milk as possible, other animals are bred to produce as much meat as possible. Many farmers are convinced that factory farming, which includes housing animals in small compartments, allows them to look after their livestock carefully and that prices of farm produce would rise steeply if they were to give up the system.

Lay people also have serious reasons to be grateful for industrialized farming. We might multiply the examples. We must remember the time when the pelvis of many women was distorted by inadequate diets; for that reason childbirth presented many hazards to women. Not so long ago, most people would not have had an ideal regular intake of vitamin C, a vitamin the human body cannot synthesize. Today, whatever the season, we can find lemons, oranges and other fruit rich in this essential vitamin on the shelves of our supermarket. Not so long ago, smoked salmon was a luxury. Today it is within the reach of almost all family budgets. It is thanks to all the different aspects of intensive farming that we all have access to a great variety of food in our daily life. The health implications are enormous and easily ignored or underestimated. Food diversification is probably one of the main factors explaining the recent spectacular increase in life expectancy in wealthy countries and still more the increase in 'healthy life expectancy', that is the tendency to stay healthy up to an older and older age. Diversification is also one of the main factors explaining the gradually increasing average height of men and women all through the 20th century.

Twentieth century human beings had multiple reasons to appreciate the advantages of industrialized farming. They had also multiple reasons to appreciate the advantages of industrialized childbirth.

There has always been a female determination to overcome the obstacles of childbirth, and a major obstacle at the beginning of the 20th century was the fear of dying or of being injured permanently. One must keep in mind that a century ago, in the USA, for example, the risk of dying from pregnancy or childbirth was above 400 per 100,000. That is why it was easy to convince women that the elimination of 'hopelessly dirty, ignorant and incompetent' midwives and the expansion of obstetrics constituted the solution and could provide relief and successful birth outcomes. That is also why the gradual switch of birth-place from home to hospital was welcomed by a great part of the population. For similar reasons, in Western Europe, new regulations increasing the control of midwifery by the medical profession were considered wise and relevant.

When Joseph DeLee, Professor of obstetrics, recommended routine episiotomies and routine forceps at every birth, American doctors expressed their enthusiasm by making these emergency measures standard practice in maternity hospitals throughout the USA. These interventions were quickly accepted by women as well. American women who went to Germany in 1914 to have a 'twilight birth' brought back their highly contagious enthusiasm. Thanks to a mixture of drugs such as morphine and scopolamine they could forget the experience of giving birth. In the language of the 1930s, 'Twilight Sleep' 'streamlined maternity's miracle'.

As a surgeon educated in the 1950s, I cannot forget the advent of the modern technique of low segmental caesarean section. It was undoubtedly the pivotal 20th century advance in the field of childbirth. What a wonderful rescue operation! I cannot forget the reactions of an old hardened surgical nurse who had participated in thousands of operations of all kinds. At the end of a caesarean she could not stop crying and repeating: "this is the most beautiful operation I have ever seen!"

In the 1970s, the enthusiasm of many obstetricians for electronic foetal monitoring was in fact a real fascination. It started from a simple idea: let us record the baby's heartbeats continuously with an electronic machine, and we'll be in the best possible situation to immediately rescue a baby in danger. We'll bring more safety in the field of childbirth. This is how, within some years, the electronic age of childbirth was established.

This enthusiasm was reinforced by the publication of impressive statistics. In the 1980s, the maternal mortality rates in Western Europe and America were in the region of 8 per 100,000, while, some decades before, they were calculated in terms of hundreds per 100,000. Another order of magnitude! It therefore became possible to change the focus and to look at the rates of babies' deaths. While the 'perinatal mortality rates' were not long ago expressed in tens per thousands, in many wealthy countries, at the height of the electronic age, they were now below ten.

Obstetricians were very fast at establishing a cause and effect relationship between the use of electronic monitoring and improved statistics...without waiting for the results of further studies.

We will not comment on the benefits of epidural anaesthesia. We just need to listen to the countless women who have reported their experience with praise. A young woman proudly told me that she could watch the TV while giving birth. Another one could finish her crosswords while waiting.

As for the enthusiasm inspired by the principle of planned caesarean section on demand, this is eloquently expressed by the results of a survey among London women obstetricians. It would be the choice of one third of them for the birth of their own baby.


We underlined that the different steps of both industrialized farming and industrialized childbirth have been in general welcomed and considered highly beneficial. In spite of that, we cannot ignore the discordant viewpoints and warnings that have been expressed throughout the 20th century by a small number of outsiders. These were outsiders endowed with an exceptional capacity to realize the long term consequences of human actions in advance. They were individuals able to think in terms of civilization rather than just in terms of individuals. These were people with enlarged visions, who can be seen as visionaries.

Rudolf Steiner is historically one of the first of a series of visionaries. It is difficult to realize how the visions of one extraordinary human being, who died in 1925, are in tune with the problems of the 21st century. The influences of Steiner' s insights are stronger than ever in many practical fields, encompassing arts, science, education, farming, medicine and social matters. Rudolf Steiner could not dissociate his interest in plant development, animal development and human development. This simple fact is a valuable lesson at a time when we are the victims of the sort of blindness generated by narrow specialization.

The Biodynamic movement sprang from eight lectures that Rudolf Steiner gave in the early 1920s in response to a request from a number of farmers. It was the first organised 'alternative' method of agriculture to be based on a comprehensive picture embracing both ecology and social life. Biodynamic farming anticipated the destructive effects of conventional farming: the soil will be eroded, the humus will be lost, flowers and animals will disappear - damages which will have to be suffered by future generations. The bio-dynamic movement was a powerful warning of the threat for humanity of the cold-hearted exploitation of the resources of the Earth. It was a powerful warning because it was constructive, offering alternative actions.

Biodynamic farming involves restoring to the soil a balanced living condition through the application and use of the completely digested form of crude organic matter known as stabilized humus. Crop rotation, correct composting and proper intercropping can all contribute to a healthier biodynamic yield. The anthroposophical concept, that pests and diseases are nature's way of getting rid of something that is basically unhealthy, is in itself seen as a warning. Today billions of dollars are spent in pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. However farmers still lose the same one-third of their crops.

Several other agricultural thinkers of huge stature - such as Robert McCarrison and Albert Howard - have expressed their discordant viewpoints and their warnings throughout the 20th century. They have inspired a great variety of organic farming movements.

Similarly some lucid and isolated giants expressed their warnings regarding the industrialization of childbirth. From the point of view of Wilheim Reich, expressed in the middle of the 20th century, civilization will start when the well-being of newborn babies will prevail over any other consideration. As for Frederick Leboyer, he published his famous book Birth Without Violence in 1974.[2] The timing was perfect. This was the height of the electronic age of childbirth. That is why 'birth without violence' was first and foremostly perceived as a warning against industrialized childbirth. This was also the time when countless 'natural childbirth movements' were developing all over the world, at the same rhythm as the organic farming movements.


At the end of the 20th century the rate of industrialization of farming suddenly speeded up. The turning point came when the twin scourges of foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease ravaged Britain and other European countries. Such epidemics have suddenly rallied public opinion against industrialized farming. They have opened the way to a new phase in the history of agriculture, animal breeding and husbandry. Foot-and-mouth was simply the last straw after mad cow disease. Disasters are obviously effective factors for consciousness-raising. In contrast, industrialized childbirth has not yet reached the same phase of its history. What disaster are we waiting for?


In the current scientific context, we are in a position to forecast what sort of disaster will bring to light the dangers of industrialized childbirth. Everybody has easy access to our Primal Health Research Data Bank ( This data bank contains hundreds of references and abstracts of studies published in authoritative medical or scientific journals. All of them are about the long-term consequences of what happens during the 'primal period'. The primal period includes foetal life, the period surrounding birth and the year following birth.[3] It is not easy to detect such studies because they do not fit into the current classifications. It is like finding a needle in a haystack. This is the main reason for the data bank.

From an overview of the bank, it immediately appears that, in all fields of medicine, there have been studies detecting correlations between an adult disease and what happened when the mother was pregnant. It is even possible to conclude, through so many such studies, that our health is to a great extent shaped in the womb.

There are, on the other hand, conditions that seem to be related to the period surrounding birth. Type in key words such as juvenile criminality,[4] violent criminality, suicide,[5],[6],[7] drug addiction,[8],[9] anorexia nervosa[10] or autism,[11],[12],[13] and you'll find in our data bank studies identifying risk factors in the period surrounding birth. There is a convenient term to connect all these conditions. All of them may be presented as different sorts of 'impaired capacity to love'. It is a convenient term because it includes impaired capacity to love others and also impaired capacity to love oneself, that is to say self-destructive behaviours.

Let us just mention one example of the sort of research that is possible today. Researchers had access to the birth records of all girls born in Sweden from 1973 to 1984. They also had access to the files of 781 girls aged between 10 and 21 who had been admitted to a Swedish hospital for the treatment of anorexia nervosa. For each anorexic girl, five non-anorexics born in the same hospital during the same year were selected for comparison. This authoritative study published in an authoritative medical journal revealed the importance of risk factors at the very time of birth. The most significant risk factor - statistically speaking - is the fact of being born with a cephalhaematoma, that a pool of blood inside one of the bones of the skull. It indicates that from a mechanical point of view the birth was probably difficult. Forceps and ventouse deliveries were also risk factors. I might analyse similar studies regarding other kinds of self destructive behaviour and 'impaired capacity to love' in general, including autism, which can also be presented as an impaired capacity to love.

The results of this new generation of studies included in our data bank are reinforced by data provided by other scientific disciplines that participate in what I call 'The Scientification of Love'.[14] By combining these data with what we learn from ethologists (who observe the behaviour of animals and human beings) and from scientists who tell us that hormones involved in childbirth are love hormones, we can conclude that the capacity to love is to a great extent determined during the period surrounding birth.

We are therefore in a position to forecast what sort of disaster might be induced by the industrialization of childbirth: more violent young criminals, more suicides of teenagers, more drug addicted adults, more anorexic girls, more autistic children... By the way, all these conditions have never been as frequent as they are today. We don't know why. Can we claim that we prefer to be blind and to ignore the hard data we already have at our disposal? Why many of the authoritative studies included in our data bank have been shunned by the scientific community, the medical community and the media as well? Why are most of these studies stuck in the framework of 'cul-de-sac epidemiology'?[15]


1. Odent M. The Farmer and the Obstetrician. Free Association Books. London. ISBN 1-85543-565-1. 2002.
2. Leboyer F. Birth Without Violence (New edition from authorized translation). Healing Arts Press. ISBN 0-89281-983-9.
3. Odent M. Primal Health. Century Hutchinson. London. 1986. (Second edition. Clairview Books. London. ISBN 1-902636-33-3. 2002.)
4. Raine A, Brennan P and Medink SA. Birth complications combined with early maternal rejection at age 1 year predispose to violent crime at 18 years. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 51: 984-88. 1994.
5. Salk L et al. Relationship of maternal and perinatal conditions to eventual adolescent suicide. Lancet. March 16th: 624-27. 1985.
6. Jacobson B et al. Perinatal origin of adult self-destructive behavior. Acra Psychiatr Scand. 76: 364-71. 1987.
7. Jacobson B and Bygdeman M. Obstetric care and proneness of offspring to suicide as adults: case control study. BMJ. 317: 1346-9. 1998.
8. Jacobson B and Nyberg K. Opiate addiction in adult offspring through possible imprinting after obstetric treatment. BMJ. 301: 1067-70. 1990.
9. Nyberg K et al. Perinatal medication as a potential risk factor for adult drug abuse in a North American cohort. Epidemiology. 11(6): 715-16. 2000.
10. Cnattingius S et al.Very preterm birth, birth trauma, and the risk of anorexia nervosa among girls. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 56: 634-89. 1999.
11. Tinbergen N and Tinbergen A. Autistic children. Allen and Unwin. London. 1983.
12. Hattori R et al. Autistic and developmental disorders after general anaesthesic delivery. Lancet. 337: 1357-58. June 1, 1991.
13. Hultman CM et al. Perinatal risk factors for infantile autism. Epidemiology. 13(4): 417-23. 2002.
14. Odent M. The Scientification of Love. Free Association Books. London. ISBN 1-85343-476-0. 1999.
15. Odent M. Between circular and cul-de-sac epidemiology. Lancet. 355: 1371. 2000.


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About Michel Odent

Michel Odent developed the maternity unit at Pithiviers Hospital in France in the 1960s and '70s. He is familiarly known as the obstetrician who introduced the concept of birthing pools and home-like birthing rooms. His approach has been featured in eminent medical journals, and in TV documentaries such as the BBC film Birth Reborn. After his hospital career he practised home birth. As a researcher he founded the Primal Health Research Center in London (UK), which focuses upon the long-term consequences of early experiences. An overview of the Primal Health Research data bank ( clearly indicates that health is shaped during the primal period (from conception until the first birthday). It also suggests that the way we are born has long-term consequences in terms of sociability, aggressiveness or, otherwise speaking, capacity to love. Michel Odent has developed a preconceptional programme (the 'accordion method') in order to minimize the effects of intrauterine and milk pollution by synthetic fat-soluble chemicals such as dioxins, PCBs, etc. His other research interests are non-specific long term effects on health of early multiple vaccinations. Author of 55 articles indexed in PubMed, Odent has published 11 books in 21 languages. In his books he has developed the art of turning traditional questions around: "How to develop good health?", instead of "How to prevent disease?", or "How the capacity to love develops?", instead of "How to prevent violence?". The Scientification of Love and The Farmer and the Obstetrician raise urgent questions about the future of our civilizations. He can be reached on

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