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Nursing the World Back to Health

By Mark Eddy Smith
Wheaton, Illinois, USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 12 No. 3, May-June 1995, pp. 68-71

It's strange, being a male working at an organization that supports breastfeeding. In the six months I've been here, my world perspective has been challenged and stretched in many and unexpected ways. When I was asked to write an article addressing breastfeeding and ecology, I admit I had no idea how the two might be connected. Breastfeeding is such an intimate relationship between a mother and her child that it was hard for me to see what impact this relationship could have on the global ecosystem. A little research opened my eyes.

Human milk is the ultimate in renewable resources. It's there as soon as the baby arrives, in the quantity the baby needs, for as long as the mother and baby want it. Not only that, but in most cases it doesn't require any preparation on the mother's part. The baby is put to the breast and the milk starts to flow. I heard that one pregnant mother, unaware of this simplicity, called La Leche League International Headquarters to ask when she should get the holes poked in her nipples so that she could breastfeed her baby. I apologize to this woman for sharing this, but Western society has become so mechanized that the question makes a weird sort of sense. The birth process seems to require so much technological paraphernalia, from sonograms to amniocentesis to "machines that go 'ping!'" that it doesn't seem possible that breastfeeding should work without machinery. (I'm the same way with computers. I have no idea how magazines got published before computers. I can't even write a letter without my computer!)

The most surprising discovery I've made at La Leche League is a sad one: La Leche League shouldn't exist. What I mean is, breastfeeding support shouldn't need to come from an international organization. Breastfeeding information used to come from mothers and close friends who spoke from experience. In societies where adult children may be widely separated geographically from their parents and in which mothers of nursing mothers may not have had much, if any, experience with breastfeeding, LLL becomes a necessity. In developing countries, where the support systems are largely still in place, La Leche League's presence serves as a counterpoint to the increasing presence of international corporations pushing "breastfeeding alternatives" on new mothers through advertisements and hospitals. The extent to which these alternatives damage children and ecosystems is horrifying.

Breastfed babies are far healthier than their bottle-fed peers. This is not because there is anything inherently dangerous in formula, only that formula can't possibly replace all the benefits of human milk. Human milk is alive with beneficial bacteria that aid an infant's digestion and help prevent diarrhea (a frequent cause of infant death in developing countries), and with immunoglobulins that protect infants from disease. It is rich with all the nutrients that the human body requires for proper development. Cow's milk passes on many of these same benefits to calves, but the nutrients and immunological factors are specifically suited for calves, not humans, and once cow's milk is processed, any immunological factors are destroyed anyway. Cow's milk is perfect for calves, but ill-suited for human children. The effects of this mismatch are devastating. In one study, a group of infants fed artificial milk had $68,000 in health care costs in a six-month period, while an equal number of nursing babies had only $4,000 worth. In Brazil, where medical care is not readily available, an artificially fed baby is 14 times more likely to die than an exclusively breastfed baby, and at least four times more likely to die than an infant receiving both mother's milk and artificial milk.

In addition to sustaining lives that might otherwise be lost, breastfeeding actually helps to curb overpopulation by preventing more births than all other forms of contraception combined. This is largely because exclusive breastfeeding postpones the return of menses. In Africa, breastfeeding prevents an average of four births per woman; in Bangladesh it prevents an average of 6.5. A study in Chile found that none of the exclusively breastfeeding women had become pregnant within six months of birth, compared to 72% of non-breastfeeding women. Also, when survival rates are higher, as they are with breastfed children, birth rates naturally tend to be lower.

While we're talking about overpopulation, let's consider cows. The world's cow population is growing faster than the human population, and since cows are even bigger than humans and require more space, this is a particularly bad problem. Cows need lots of open grassland, and they tend to trample on it, which leads to erosion. When dairy farmers need more open grassland to raise more cows, they cut down forests, often rain forests, which leads to the extinction of various species and depletes the amount of oxygen being produced. Cows' waste products account for 20% of the world's annual methane emissions. Methane is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. Solid waste from cows can contaminate local groundwater. In short, we need fewer cows. One way to accomplish this is to have more breastfeeding mothers.

Of course, not all artificial baby milk comes from cows. Some of it comes from soya beans, which, in addition to being equally incapable of matching the benefits of human milk, is also a high-input crop, meaning that it needs a lot of pesticides and fertilizer (not to mention land) which can cause a lot of pollution. Major lending institutions encourage the production of soya beans, as well as the raising of cattle, as a way for poor countries to pay off their debts.

Cows and soya beans are not the end of the ecological destruction wreaked by artificial milks. Transporting milk to processing plants (often a considerable distance) and transporting the final product to consumers (usually from overdeveloped countries to developing countries) requires enormous amounts of energy and adds to pollution and the depletion of global resources.

This is not to say that alternatives to human milk are the root of all evil, but they are certainly the root of some kinds of evil.

Bottles and rubber nipples need to be sterilized by boiling them in water for ten minutes. Otherwise, disease and infection will result. This can be a real problem in developing countries where resources are especially scarce, and mothers must often transport the necessary wood and water from long distances.

Finally, all the packaging and advertising materials, all the bottles and rubber nipples, must eventually be disposed of. For every three million bottle-fed babies, 450 million empty tins end up in landfills. Few are recycled.

Human milk, on the other hand, requires no transportation, only a little more food for the mother, and can stand covered, in a clean cup, for up to six hours without becoming contaminated. This is true even in warm climates. Also, the production of breast milk creates no waste in need of disposing.

Unfortunately, no discussion about breastfeeding and the environment can be complete without talking about ways in which the environment affects breast milk. PCBs, PCDDs and PCDFs are all toxins that filter up the food chain and are present in human milk. These poisons come from insecticide use and large-scale burning of some substances. In the Great Lakes Basin, in Canada, a General Motors Plant is the site of perhaps the biggest PCB dump yet uncovered. The primary recipients of this contamination are the residents of the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation, downstream and downwind of the GM plant. A study of this population, undertaken by the women of the reservation, found elevated levels of a number of toxins in their breast milk, which are passed on, in concentrated doses, to their children. Babies receiving high concentrations of these toxins are subject to rashes and skin-discoloration, but fortunately, because of rapid weight gain during breastfeeding, the concentration of toxins in the infant's body does not increase. In fact, the study concluded that any effect of PCBs on an infant's intelligence is the result of pollutants crossing the placenta, not breastfeeding. While the presence of pollutants in human milk is cause for immense concern, it should not be seen as a reason to discontinue breastfeeding. Infant formula is not free from this type of contamination. Dangerously high levels of aluminum, lead, dioxins, even radiation (following the Chernobyl accident) have been found in artificial milk samples.

In a way, it makes perfect sense for someone like me to have written this article. At first glance, it would seem that no one could be less affected by a mother's decision to breastfeed or not breastfeed her baby than an unmarried adult male, but in light of the evidence discussed here, it would seem that everyone is affected. The planet itself bears the burden if this precious resource is squandered. But if I am affected, then I am also, in part, responsible. Let me be clear that mothers who choose not to breastfeed their babies do not bear the primary responsibility for the destruction I have discussed. The vast majority of mothers, given correct information and the proper support, would naturally choose to breastfeed their children. It is only through misinformation, greed, and the continuing disintegration of many cultures, that this natural tendency is undermined.

The solution is not beyond our grasp, as so many other of the world's problems seem to be. Mothers need to be educated and supported in their efforts to nourish their children. Doctors and other health workers need to be educated concerning the benefits of breastfeeding and the harmful effects of formula. Laws which prohibit the unethical advertising tactics used by infant formula manufacturers need to be enforced. Organizations around the world that are working to bring these things about need support. Universal breastfeeding will not bring the problems of the world to an end, but just as breastfeeding is the best start for newborn infants, so it may be the best beginning for the healing of our world.

RESOURCES

Breastfeeding for Life. Contact. 1989.

Breastmilk, PCB's and Motherhood. Indigenous Woman. 1993.

Child Feeding and Ecology. 13th World Conference. Hong Kong. 1991.

Radford, A. The Ecological Impact of Bottle Feeding. Breastfeeding Review. May, 1992.

Smail E. "Veganism and the greenhouse effect." The Vegan, vol. 6 (2). 1990.

World Health Organization Report on Infant Feeding.

Zacharias S. et al. "Return of fertility in lactating and non-lactating women." Journal of Biosocial Science, 19. 1987.

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