Breastfeeding: a sustainable practice
The recent Summit for Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa, gives us opportunity for renewed focus on the importance of breastfeeding as a sustainable practice. It seems so easy to cite the environmental importance of an act as simple and as normal as breastfeeding.
Common sense tells us that breastfeeding requires no external inputs, no expensive and non-renewable resources, no plastic or metal packaging, no fuel for distribution; no heating is required to destroy bacterial and viral contaminants and no plastic feeding apparatus is needed. Breastfeeding is so very friendly, yet as a natural resource breastmilk, the most ecologically sound and perfect human food, remains undervalued and its protection a focus for advocates.
As a natural resource, breastfeeding has yet to make its mark. With much of the world’s attention, and deservedly so, on greenhouse gases, destruction of rain forests, pollution of waterways and the air we breathe, solutions need to include the environmental costs of not utilizing the health and immunological contributions of breastfeeding. When we take a closer look at the ecological savings, we observe that when infants are artificially formula-fed, the tally is staggering. It is also important to note that the waste created by the artificial feeding industry (with very few exceptions) is entirely needless.
“People are rising up in arms because the rainforests are being destroyed, and valuable pharmaceuticals are being lost. But breastfeeding is very much the same. It provides so much to human health, and yet we are losing it. For the sake of profits.”
—Linda Ross development educator,
Inefficient use of land
Infant formulas are manufactured for the most part from modified cow’s milk. While four hectares of land will generally support 61 people when growing soy, 24 people when growing wheat, 10 people when growing maize, it supports only two people when used for raising cattle. In India alone it would require 135 million lactating cows to replace the breastmilk required for India’s babies.
Contributes to greenhouse gases
Cattle flatulence also contributes significantly to the buildup of greenhouse gases. The methane gas produced is considered to be the second most damaging greenhouse gas. It is estimated that the methane production from the dairy industry contributes 20% to total greenhouse gases. Clearing land for grazing is yet another link to the earth’s diminishing ability to sustain climate and air quality. For Mexico, to produce one kilogram of baby milk powder, 12.5 square meters of land need to be cleared.
Contributes to waste
We calculated that more than 15 million tin cans would be discarded if 50% of Canada’s infants (based on a birthrate of 400,000 per year) are bottle-fed for six months. However, as the infant formula industry is now promoting the use of its products for longer duration with follow on milks and milks for toddlers the duration of feeding canned milks is ever-increasing.
Escalating amounts of waste are produced as the products are manufactured, packaged, transported, sold through retail outlets and purchased, then prepared, consumed and their packaging, tins and labels are discarded. None of this is needed when women breastfeed.
Notwithstanding its high economic value as a natural resource, the economic contribution of breastmilk is generally ignored. Its contribution to the Gross National Product generates no “profits” for corporations so its economic value can be dismissed. The Norwegian Nutrition Council had other ideas and calculated that during the nineties Norwegian women produced over 8.2 litres of milk annually and valued this to be worth at least $460-million (U.S.).
When infants are not breastfed, the cost to society is overwhelming. Families need to pay for breastmilk substitutes, bottles, teats, fuel and all the paraphernalia linked to artificial feeding. The subsequent costs to the health care system associated with the treatment of infectious as well as chronic diseases linked to not breastfeeding can be in the billions of dollars.
Otitis media, a childhood ear infection, with an incidence of more than 50% lower in breastfed babies than for formula-fed, is estimated to cost parents in the U.S. about $1330 per episode. This includes costs for parental time to care for a sick infant, medications and physician visits. In Canada hospitalization rates for respiratory illness were 55 times greater for bottle-fed infants than for breastfed infants. Treatment of diabetes costs Canada’s health care system approximately $9-billion annually and the cost to families is about $3,600 per year. In countries where there is no public health care system the cost to a family would be prohibitive.
Environmental costs are rarely calculated when tins, plastic and paper needs to be discarded nor the cost related to the environmental damage when fossil fuels are needed.
Think of trying to bottle feed an infant in places of the globe where populations are under attack, or where there are large populations of refugees. Breastfeeding can save an infant’s life in emergencies when the requirements for artificial feeding are inaccessible or where conditions make their use highly unsafe.
The world’s most efficient, cheapest and safest method of birth spacing is breastfeeding. When practiced according to the Lactational Amenhorrea Method (LAM) it is as effective as hormonal interventions. The latter is expensive, not available to the majority of women, and is a medical
intervention with documented side effects linked to increased risk of cardiac illness and breast cancer.
On average breastfeeding in developing countries prevents four births per woman. In Chile, mothers breastfeeding exclusively for six months reported no pregnancies, while of those bottle-feeding, 72% became pregnant.
Clearly breastfeeding women are doing their part. We are all the better for it.
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