By Wendy Correa
Issue 95, July/August 1999
In the past few decades we have become increasingly aware of the need to radically alter our lifestyles in order to draw less upon our natural resources. Breastfeeding is probably the most overlooked means of contributing to the health of our planet.
Breastmilk is a valuable renewable natural resource that is the most ecologically sound food source available. It is produced and delivered to the consumer without using other resources, and it creates no pollution. In contrast, artificial baby milk production pollutes our land, air, and water and uses up natural resources. It also causes the deaths of one and a half million babies every year and ill health in countless others.1 Breastfeeding is not just a lifestyle choice; it is a health issue for mother and infant, a social issue, and an environmental issue.
Each year more and more scientific evidence is gathered to prove what many people already intuitively know: that a mother's milk is the best food for her baby. In December 1997 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its most aggressive statement to date urging mothers to breastfeed for at least a year and beyond, "for as long as mutually desired."2 Mother's milk alone provides all the nutrients necessary for a baby's physical and mental development for at least six months, with the added benefit of natural immunity against numerous diseases. Breastfed babies experience fewer incidents of ear infections, allergies, diarrhea, bacterial meningitis, childhood lymphoma, sudden death syndrome, and diabetes.3,4
Concerns have been raised in the last few years about potential pollutants absorbed by mother's milk from the environment. According to La Leche League International, "In reviewing investigations of contaminants in mother's milk...the research shows consistently that even in a polluted world, breastfeeding offers advantages which outweigh the risk of ingesting possible contaminants. Indeed, the benefits of breastfeeding may prove to be essential to compensate for and outweigh the risks of toxic effects from the environment. The focus of scientific concerns should be directed toward removing such chemicals from our environment, not casting doubts about the only unprocessed source of perfect nutrition for infants-human milk."5
Indeed, there may be more risk of contaminants associated with the use of artificial baby milk than with breastmilk. Pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics-all potential contaminants-are part of the production of cow's milk and soya used in artificial baby milk, and other contaminants have been found. Some of the formula recalls in the last few years have been triggered by the discovery of high levels of phytoestrogen hormones, high levels of aluminum and lead, bacterial contamination, unsanitary production linked to gastrointestinal illness, salmonella, and glass particles mixed in with the powder6 Researchers in the Netherlands found dangerous bacteria, which can cause meningitis and sepsis, in 52.5 percent of the formula samples they cultured from 35 countries.7
Breastfeeding provides benefits to the mother who breastfeeds as well as to her baby. Women who breastfeed reduce their risk of ovarian cancer, pre-menopausal breast cancer, and post-menopausal hip fractures; reduce postpartum bleeding and iron deficiency anemia; and delay ovulation as a natural means of child spacing.8
Here are ten more reasons why breastfeeding is best:
Producing artificial baby milk contributes to inefficient use of land, deforestation, and soil erosion. Each grazing cow that produces milk used in artificial baby milk needs about 10,000 square meters of land.9 Wooded land is cleared for pasture, leading to deforestation as well as depletion and erosion of the soil. Land used to grow cattle feed in Third World countries is often land that was formerly used for family food production or was forested. Brazilian forests, for example, are cleared and burned to make way for soya plantations. Soya is used to feed cattle and as a base for some artificial baby milk. Growing soya also requires a high amount of fertilizers and irrigation.
People in non-industrialized countries often use wood as fuel to heat artificial milk; each bottle-fed baby requires a minimum of 73 kilos of valuable wood each year.10 One study determined that producing one kilogram of formula in Mexico costs 12.5 square meters of rain forest.11 Gabrielle Palmer, a nutritionist and breastfeeding counselor, states: "Human milk is a commodity which is ignored in national inventories and disregarded in food consumption surveys, yet it does actually save a country millions of dollars in imports and health costs. The Mozambican Ministry of Health calculated in 1982 that if there were a mere twenty percent rise in bottle-feeding, in just two years this would cost the country (the equivalent of) 10 million US dollars, and this did not include fuel, distribution, or health costs. They also calculated the fuel required for boiling the water would use the entire resources from one of the major forestry projects."12
The manufacturing of the packaging of artificial baby milk creates toxins and uses paper, plastic, and tin. For every 3 million bottle-fed babies, 450 million tins of formula are consumed.13 The resulting 70,000 tons of metal in the form of discarded tins is not recycled.14 The 550 million tins of artificial baby milk sold each year to bottle feed US babies alone stacked end to end would circle the earth one and a half times;15 550 million tins equals 86,000 tons of tin and 1,230 tons of paper labels.16
Harmful dioxins are a byproduct of the papermaking process. "It's a tragic irony," says Andrew Radford, United Kingdom Coordinator of Baby Milk Action (BMA), "that mothers who give up breastfeeding in reaction to scares about dioxin in the breastmilk are actually contributing to the amount of dioxin in the environment as a whole."17
Making artificial baby milk contaminates water. Sewage from dairy cows as well as the fertilizers used to grow feed for them pollute rivers and groundwaters, affecting all ecosystems dependent upon the rivers and groundwaters. John Robbins of Earth Save International estimates that the water pollution attributable to US agriculture, including runoff of soil, pesticides, and manure, is greater than all municipal and industrial sources combined.18 In addition, half of all wells and surface streams in the US are contaminated by agricultural pollutants.19 In Third World countries, water is often contaminated, further jeopardizing the health of the infants. In addition, those who can't afford the artificial baby milk often will dilute the formula, depriving the baby of nutrients and contributing to infant illness and mortality. "Baby bottle disease" is responsible for the deaths of one and a half million babies per year.20
Producing artificial baby milk contributes to air pollution. Methane gas is second behind carbon dioxide in contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming; cow flatulence and excretion account for 20 percent, or 100 million tons, of the total annual global methane emissions.21
In Third World countries, the wood that is burned for fuel to heat the artificial milk creates further air pollution. Incineration is a common disposal method, and the burning of the packaging, plastic bottles, nipples, and other paraphernalia contributes to air pollution.
Processing artificial baby milk consumes energy. Artificial baby milk is factory processed and converted into powder at high temperatures. The process requires vast amounts of electric energy worldwide. Manufacturing of the bottles, nipples, and other paraphernalia of bottle-feeding also uses energy.
Artificial baby milk costs a lot of money that could be better spent to clean up our land, air, and water. It has been estimated that at least $429 million could be saved annually if mothers in the Women, Infants and Children's supplementary feeding program (WIC) would breastfeed for just one month.22 A tin of powdered artificial baby milk in the United States sells for approximately $13. In the first year of life an infant consumes approximately 70 cans at a costof about $910. Although currently the largest purchaser of artificial baby milk, WIC has been actively promoting breastfeeding, particularly to many immigrants who had abandoned breastfeeding for the more "American" method of bottle-feeding. In 1992, 38.8 percent of mothers associated with WIC breastfed; by 1996, that figure had risen to 46.6 percent.23
Transportation of raw materials for the production of artificial baby milk, packaging, and all of the components of bottle-feeding consumes precious fuel. Once processed, artificial baby milk has to be transported sometimes thousands of miles to the consumer. Ecuador, for example, imports artificial baby milk from the United States, Ireland, Switzerland, and Holland.
Manufacturing of bottles, nipples, and other feeding equipment uses large amounts of plastic, rubber, silicon, and glass. Plastic feeding bottles, nipples, and pacifiers take 200 to 450 years to break down when disposed of in landfills sites, which are becoming increasingly scarce.24
Menstruation is delayed for an average of 14 months for mothers who breastfeed exclusively, saving vast amounts of paper used in sanitary hygiene products. If every mother in Great Britain breastfed, more than 3,000 tons of paper would be saved every year in sanitary napkins alone.25 Breastmilk is absorbed very efficiently by babies, so breastfed babies excrete less and require fewer diaper changes than babies who are fed artificial baby milk. Producing diapers, menstrual pads, and tampons requires fibers, bleaches, packaging materials, and fuels used in manufacturing and product distribution-thereby sending more items to the landfill, especially if cloth diapers are not used.
Breastfeeding is a natural birth control/child spacer. The chance of getting pregnant while breastfeeding exclusively is less than 1 percent during the first six months as long as menstruation has not yet returned.26 Worldwide, breastfeeding is a more effective method of birth control than all other methods available to Third World women. In Chile, a study of new mothers found no pregnant breastfeeding women at six months postpartum, and a 72 percent pregnancy rate at six months postpartum for bottle-feeding women.27 Breastfeeding is credited with preventing a lifetime average of 4 births per woman in Africa and 6.5 births in Bangladesh.28
Several factors contribute to the undermining of breastfeeding: lack of understanding and education, including that of some doctors and hospitals; employment policies that don't support and encourage breastfeeding mothers; lack of general social support and education; and aggressive marketing campaigns waged by the multibillion dollar formula industry.
The number of new mothers returning to work within a year of giving birth continues to rise. Many changes must be implemented to accommodate, support, and encourage working mothers to continue to breastfeed. More than ten years ago, Elisabet Helsing of the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office for Europe said: "If society hinders the optimal breastfeeding by mothers who work outside the home, society needs to change, not women."29 The Executive Director of UNICEF, James Grant, perhaps summed it up best: "The promotion of breastfeeding must not be seen as an excuse to exclude women from the labor force. The burden should no longer fall on women to choose between breastfeeding and work. The burden is on society to facilitate breastfeeding and indeed child care."30
In January 1998, the PBS "Nightly Business Report" concluded with three very good reasons why employers should want to accommodate and support working women who breastfeed. First, companies need women to return to work as soon as possible; studies show that women who can continue to breastfeed will return to work sooner. Second, pediatricians agree that breastfed babies are sick less often than bottle-fed babies as they grow older; therefore, parents will spend less time caring for their sick children if they have been breastfed. Finally, employers are investing in their future work force by supporting breastfeeding; some studies have indicated that breastfed babies have potentially higher IQ's and better academic accomplishments than bottle-fed babies.31
Because of the far-reaching positive ecological, health, and social impact breastfeeding can make on our planet, it is imperative for anyone interested in protecting our children and our environment to do whatever possible to support, protect, and promote breastfeeding.
1. N. Baumslag & D. Michels, Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding (Westport, CT/London: Bergin & Garvey, 1995), 93.
2. Associated Press, "Pediatrics Group Urges a Year of Breastfeeding," Chicago Tribune, 3 December 1997, Sec. 1, p. 3.
3. See Note 1, pp. 74-80.
4. American Academy of Pediatrics, "Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk," Pediatrics 100, no. 6 (Dec. 1997): 1035-1039.
5. "Breastfeeding Remains Best Choice in a Polluted World" (Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International Earth Day press release), April 1996.
6. See Note 1, p. xxviii; pp. 103-105; and Appendix C.
7. "Formula Recalls," Mothering, January-February 1998, pp. 62-63.
8. See Note 1, p. 91 and pp. 142-143.
9. A. Radford, "The Ecological Impact of Bottle Feeding," Breastfeeding Review (May 1992): 204-208.
10. See Note 1, p. 141.
12. La Leche League International, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (USA: Penguin Books, 1995), 384.
15. Breastfeeding Nature's Way, World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), promotional pamphlet for World Breastfeeding Week, 1997.
16. See Note 9, p. 205.
17. "Bottle Feeding Is an Environmental Hazard," Nursing Mothers (January/February 1995): 23.
18. John Robbins, "How to Win an Argument with a Meat Eater" (Santa Cruz, CA: Earth Save International), promotional poster.
20. See Note 1, page 93.
21. See Note 9, page 206.
22. See Note 1, p. 141.
23. Ross Mother's Survey, Ross Products Division, Abbott Laboratories, 1996.
24. See Note 15.
25. See Note 1, p. 141.
26. T. Greiner, "Breastfeeding and LAM [Lactation Amenorrhea Method of Contraception]: Beyond Conventional Approaches," World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), research paper presented to Georgetown University Institute for Reproductive Health, Washington, D.C., May 1997.
27. See Note 1, p. 142.
29. A. Linnecar & V. Yee, Maternity Legislation: Protecting Women's Rights to Breastfeed, Activity Sheet from World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), 1997.
31. Commentary by Cassie Seifert, Nightly Business Report, Station WPBT, Miami, Florida, January 12, 1998.
Wendy Correa is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and professional organizer. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three-year-old son, Mateo.