by Britta Boutry-Stadelmann – Geneva, Switzerland
You are breastfeeding and happy about doing so. Your motivations may be varied – to give your baby an optimal start in life, to consider health issues or family tradition, or just to cuddle your baby and prolong the intimacy and feelings of closeness you experienced when you were pregnant. All these motivations are wonderful and there are even more. In fact, what mothers do not often take into consideration is the connection between breastfeeding and protecting the environment. This year’s theme of the World Breastfeeding Week is: Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet.  What does this mean?
The relation between Breastfeeding and “Green Feeding”
You may have come across the expression “Green Feeding”. “Green Feeding” refers to optimal and sustainable foods that protect the health of people as well as the biodiversity and environment of our planet – Mother Earth – now and for future generations. Breastfeeding is “Green Feeding”, it is naturally healthy, local and sustainable. 
First: Breastfeeding requires few natural resources
Breastfeeding is the readily available source of natural food for babies. It does not have any of the negative impacts on the environment that substitutes – such as formula – have, which in fact require manufacturing, processing, and transportation of ingredients such as powdered cow milk, soy or rice, vegetable oils, sugars and additives.
The production of these artificial foods contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and climate change. It uses huge amounts of water to produce 1 kg of powdered formula, more than 4000 L of water are needed along the production pathway.  Besides the water needed for production, the run-off of waste from industrial dairy farming threatens our water supply with contamination by effluents and harmful chemicals, including pesticides.
The manufacture of ultra-processed baby foods uses resources such as tin for cans and plastic for containers, bottles and teats, producing waste that ends up in landfills, further polluting our environment. Plastic pollution in particular is an environmental catastrophe made worse by the consumption of single-use items.
Second: Breastfeeding is “local”
When you breastfeed, your milk is available on the spot, at the right temperature and in appropriate quantity and quality. When mother and baby are together no packaging is necessary. Breastmilk substitutes need not only packaging, but also production sites and transport.
Human milk is made for babies. To produce artificial substitutes for mothers’ milk, milk from another species – generally cows – is used. In order to adapt it to humans, it must be highly processed. Cow’s milk is made for calves, not for human babies. So, artificial baby food production not only needs cattle and their milk, but also specific manufacturing sites. According to data as of 2014, there are about 50 manufacturing sites across the world, so products have to be transported over long distances. 
The most discussed environmental load is CO2, but it is not the only one that heavily impacts our planet. Methane, for example, is even more critical and directly linked to the breeding of cattle. Therefore the amount of artificial baby food used and produced directly impacts our planet.
Third: Artificial baby foods need infrastructure
Infrastructure needs many resources, too, like the construction of stables for cattle, trucks for transport of cow’s milk, production sites of formula and manufacturing packaging, and finally landfills and incineration for all the garbage that is produced by discarding packages, tins, bottles, teats… After they are no longer useful.
A breastfeeding mother has moderate material needs. She does not use bottles and teats, unless she is expressing her milk for her baby. In this case, the protection of her and her baby’s health outweighs the environmental impact, which leads to the fourth point.
Fourth: Not breastfeeding has an environmental price
As the saying goes, “health is priceless”, and this is true. But our healthcare system has a cost. If we look at studies on economic issues, not only does not breastfeeding cost lives, but it also leads to huge costs in terms of treating the consequences of not breastfeeding. 
Worldwide, we pay the price for health problems that could be prevented by breastfeeding. Infectious diseases as well as non-infectious ones, i.e. non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the challenges of our time. Our immune system and our metabolism are key health factors. Both are influenced by the quality of our nutrition. Breastfeeding is the first food that gives babies a healthy start.
Infectious diseases are more common, and more lethal, when babies are fed artificial substitutes for their mother’s milk. They often require treatment with antibiotics, the production, packaging and distribution of which have significant costs. The World Health Organization (WHO) states: “Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” 
NCDs like cancer, cardiovascular diseases, obesity and diabetes are another important health issue. Breastfeeding not only protects children’s health, it also helps mothers to stay healthy. It is indeed well known that artificial feeding increases risks for breast and ovarian cancers and several other diseases which may require medications, operations and hospital stays, all of which have a human cost as well as an environmental one.
Medication (production, packaging, transport, discard), hospital beds, hospital consumables (tubes, injection material, storage, disinfectant…) may all have a negative impact on our environment – not just a financial cost.
Fifth: Breastfeeding contributes to circular economy
When we strengthen “Green Feeding” practices by protecting and supporting mothers and breastfeeding, we are also protecting our air, water and land. Breastfeeding is part of a safe, restorative and toxic-free circular economy that is based on biological cycles, not extractive industries. Like other green priorities, supporting new parents with breastfeeding now will have benefits for future generations.
Even if you do not think about the environment when you breastfeed your baby, after reading this article you may perhaps feel that you are part of a worldwide effort to protect the planet. You may also be more conscious of the fact that every day habits can have a big impact on pollution and resources. Perhaps you may even realize that food choices can have a huge impact on our planet, and you might consider going further, and beyond breastfeeding, to contribute to a healthy planet.
Britta Boutry-Stadelmann, PhD, is a La Leche League Leader and trainer in Switzerland. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and a WBTi (World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative) coordinator. She also has a mandate of representation at GIFA (Association genevoise pour l’alimentation infantile) – IBFAN in Geneva.
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