Originally from New Orleans, Erin Bannister, lab instructor and dietetic intern at Northern Illinois University, says that food is tied to her identity. Bannister was ten when she first learned to make a roux. Those early skills prepared her for her later work as a chef, which she describes as a kind of manual labor with long, hot hours.
Bannister shares with a laugh, that she started to wonder how she could work with food and continue to nourish people with weekends and holidays off. Eventually, she discovered the field of dietetics.
Currently in the thick of her Master’s thesis, Bannister is exploring the metabolic energy needs in adults and determining whether the default equations we use are accurate in the populations they’re used in.
For instance, it is widely accepted that an average allowance for a roughly 170 pound man is 2,300 kcal/day; for women, it is 1,900 kcal/day. We expect that pregnant and lactating people will have higher metabolic energy needs.
As Bannister spends a swath of her days compiling and extracting data, she says she’s discovering that some of the accepted equations need to be delineated.
“The real root of my thesis and the root of most of my studies and the goals that I have, is to use accurate evidence-based interventions in the populations that they are meant to be used in and to not remove ourselves from that evidence,” Bannister begins. “… Often times, things are taught and then they are believed because the person that taught it is an expert and the evidence gets lost on the way; don’t forget to review the evidence.”
As Bannister continues to pursue this idea that we can do better than sludging through the status quo, she sought out the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC). Although Bannister has great interest in the complexities of nutrition and health from cradle to grave, she says that there is a solid argument that the health of a population is highly correlated with the health of its mothers.
“[I want] to be as helpful and effective as possible… to have the knowledge to be able to contribute meaningfully, and the certification adds credibility,” she explains. “The training was quite eye-opening, almost embarrassing to say how little I knew about breastfeeding.”
Bannister goes on that ultimately, she would like to work with nutrition intervention in low and middle income countries where the burden of improper nutrition is most severe. Currently, many countries worldwide face the double burden of malnutrition – characterized by the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight, obesity or diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). In fact, nearly one in three people globally suffers from at least one form of malnutrition: wasting, stunting, vitamin and mineral deficiency, overweight or obesity and diet-related NCDs. (WHO 2017)
As Bannister buckles down at the end of the semester, she says, “I want to make sure I am utilizing all the forks I’ve got in the fire.”
Inform people about the links between breastfeeding and the environment/climate change
Anchor breastfeeding as a climate-smart decision
Engage people and organizations for greater impact
Galvanize action on improving the health of the planet and people through breastfeeding
Can breastfeeding really affect climate change and create a cleaner, healthier environment?
Our planet’s health is closely tied to human health, and so there is a growing interest in learning how to protect the health of the environment.
Among the many things humans can do to protect the environment, breastfeeding is one of the most important. Breastfeeding is the best example of a clean, eco-friendly action to protect and improve the health of planet Earth.
Breastfeeding is the ultimate natural, sustainable resource. It requires no raw materials needed for processing and no energy consumption in production or transportation. It does not produce any material waste or by-products, does not require any packaging materials, water resources or electricity, and creates no pollution of the air or water. Lactation is a perfect partner for environmental health and the ultimate example of “eating local”.
Parents who express their milk and feed from bottles or other methods also provide a more planet-friendly feeding method than artificial feeding. Formula manufacturing requires energy, material and transportation.
The carbon footprint of breastfeeding gives us another glimpse into the environmental impact of breastfeeding. Wikipedia defines carbon footprint as “the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, service, or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent.” In simple terms, it’s a measurement that shows us something’s impact on the health of the environment.
The carbon footprint of breastfeeding is based on the production and transportation of food for the mother based on the RDA of an additional 500 kcal/day recommended during breastfeeding. According to research from the United Kingdom, the carbon footprint of breastfeeding is estimated at 5.9 (this varies between countries).
In comparison, the carbon footprint of formula feeding— which is based on the use of resources, animal and factory production emissions and transportation of the formula as well as supplies, preparation and storage of formula at home— is estimated at 11.0 (again varying between countries). On average, feeding breast milk substitutes had a higher impact on the climate than breastfeeding in all countries studied. This certainly demonstrates the positive impact on the environment when the infant feeding choice is breastfeeding.(Bodkin, 2019 Meade, 2008)
The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) supports optimal infant feeding practices and advocates for universal implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, an international health strategy recommending restrictions on the marketing of all formulas and supplies intended to discourage breastfeeding. In 2015 IBFAN developed their statement on breastfeeding and the environment:
“Breastfeeding protects our health and our planet – right from the start, breastfeeding is the first step towards protecting human health, short- and long-term. It is also the first step towards protecting the health of our environment and conserving our planet’s scarce natural resources. We need to start at the beginning, with infants and young children. Our babies and children are in no way responsible for climate change and environmental degradation, but instead they suffer the disastrous consequences.” (IBFAN, 2015)
It’s clear that breastfeeding is the most climate-friendly option for infant feeding, but does the environment have an impact on breastfeeding? The answer is yes.
For decades scientists around the world have studied the impact of environmental contaminants on the mammary gland, and on mothering behaviors. For instance, a study from the Journal of Health Science demonstrated that rats exposed to dietary bisphenol A (BPA) in early pregnancy showed cellular injury to the mammary glands as well as lower prolactin levels. (Miyaura, 2004).
What’s more, Rochester Medical Center studies reported in Science Daily demonstrated damage to rat mammary glands to the extent that some mother rats were unable to nourish their pups after exposure to dioxins. Researchers noted that some rats were able to recover mammary function by late pregnancy. (Lawrence, 2009).
In 2013, a study in the Journal of Neurotoxicology and Teratology showed a decrease in maternal behaviors in Wistar rats (less grooming, protection and nuzzling), a concerning finding but not yet demonstrated in humans. (Boudalia, 2013}.
Studies like these are the basis for ongoing research looking into possible negative impacts on human lactation. The studies are also the basis of much education related to how to create a safer environment while protecting lactation.
An unpublished study from Wright State University looked at mothers with self-described low milk supply and the relationship between environmental contaminants. The 78 mothers in the study were four weeks to eight months postpartum and were all given education on reducing exposures to environmental estrogens (personal care products, food hormones and plasticizers).
Results were seen in one to five weeks and ranged from the mothers stating her “breasts were fuller,” the “babies seemed more satisfied,” and fewer needed supplementation. Some found a doubling of supply (noted with pumping during work hours). Seven had no noticeable increase in milk supply, and of those only two weaned from breastfeeding. The rest continued supplementation. (Walls, presented 2009).
In a Mexican study of young Yaqui tribe women, those who moved from native land to new chemical based agriculture, had less alveolar tissue compared to the young women who remained with the tribe and practiced traditional, non-chemical farming techniques.
Many of the agri-chemical exposed young women were found to have larger than normal breasts, but less glandular tissue (referred to as “empty breast” syndrome) and many were unable to breastfeed their infants which is viewed as an integral part of mothering in their culture. (Hansen, 2010).
On the surface, these studies can seem discouraging until we really weigh the risks and benefits of breastfeeding in a polluted world.
First, human milk contains properties that have been shown to mitigate some negative, environmental effects. (Williams, Florence, NYT)
For instance, human milk contains bio-active components which specifically control and resolve inflammation, promote a thick, healthy gut lining to support an optimum functioning immune system and provide the most nutritious food for optimum general health for infants and children.
Emeritus Director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute Miriam Labbok, MD, MPH, IBCLC stated “The fact that studies of child [health] outcomes in highly polluted areas are still better for the breastfed infant . . . would seem to indicate that certain factors in the production of human milk and in the milk itself, immunological and other, may mediate the potential harm of the ambient pollution.”
She went on to say, “… No environmental contaminant, except in situations of acute poisoning, has been found to cause more harm to infants than does lack of breast-feeding. I have seen no data that would argue against breastfeeding, even in the presence of today’s levels of environmental toxicants.”
Sandra Steingraber, biologist and author of Living Downstream and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood agrees: ”We haven’t yet compromised breast milk to such an extent that it’s a worse food than infant formula…..”
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has also published that certain components of human milk act to increase the infant’s elimination of some toxins and to protect the infant’s developing brain, central nervous system, and body as a whole.
WABA’s statement on breastfeeding and environmental contaminants echoes this sentiment and encourages breastfeeding as the safest feeding choice despite maternal exposure to contaminants.
Their statement reads: “Is the presence of these chemical residues in breastmilk a reason not to breastfeed? No. Exposure before and during pregnancy is a greater risk to the fetus. The existence of chemical residues in breastmilk is not a reason for limiting breastfeeding. In fact, it is a reason to breastfeed because breastmilk contains substances that help the child develop a stronger immune system and gives protection against environmental pollutants and pathogens. Breastfeeding can help limit the damage caused by fetal exposure.” (WABA, 2005.)
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) review on contaminants and human milk states definitively, “The benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the toxicological disadvantages that are associated with certain POPs” (persistent organic pollutants).
To reiterate, considering the safety of human milk even when contaminants have been detected, neonatal intensive care researcher Fani Anatolitou (2012) states, “the detection of any environmental chemical in breast milk does not necessarily mean that there is a serious health risk for breastfed infants. No adverse effect has been clinically or epidemiologically demonstrated as being associated solely with consumption of human milk containing background levels of environmental chemicals”.
It is important to understand that many of the measurements of POPs in human milk are not clinically meaningful, hence are not a cause for alarm. Even more importantly, as mentioned earlier, a number of components of human milk act to counter potential risks of contaminant exposure (Anitolitou, 2012). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that effects of exposure have only been detected in a breastfeeding infant when the mother was extremely ill.
As lactation care providers we are in a unique position to not only support the optimum health of infants and children, but also be a part of creating a healthier environment for the children to grow and thrive.
American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). (2018). Breastfeeding, Family Physicians Supporting (Position Paper). Downloaded 17. Jan. 2018 from https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/breastfeeding-support.html
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Section on Breastfeeding. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk (Policy Statement). Pediatrics 129(3), e827-e841. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-3552.
AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals Into Human Milk Committee on Drugs https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/3/776/T7
Anadón, A., Martínez-Larrañaga, M. R., Ares, I., Castellano, V., Martínez, M. A. (2017). Drugs and chemical contaminants in human breast milk. In R. C. Gupta (Ed.), Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology (2nd Ed., pp. 67-98). London, UK: Academic Press.
Anatolitou, F. (2012). Human milk benefits and breastfeeding. Journal of Pediatric and Neonatal Individualized Medicine 1(1), 11-18. DOI: 10.7363/010113.
Arnardottir,H. et al. Human milk proresolving mediators stimulate resolution of acute inflammation. Mucosal Immunology, October 2015 DOI: 10.1038/mi.2015.99
Bodkin, H. Breastfeed to save the planet, scientists say as study exposes infant formula damage to environment https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2019/10/02/breastfeed-save-planet-scientists-say-study-exposes-infant-formula/
Boudalia, S. et al. A multi-generational study on low-dose BPA exposure in Wistar rats: Effects on maternal behavior, flavor intake and development. Neurotoxicol Teratol 2013 Nov 20. pii: S08920362(13)00217-1. doi:10.1016/j.ntt.2013
Climate Change and Health June 2015 https://ibfan.org/docs/climate-change-2015-English.pdf
Dadhich, J, Lellamo, A. Report on Carbon Footprints Due to Milk Formula: a Study from Selected Countries of the Asia-Pacific Region
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Goldman, A. Anti‐inflammatory Properties of Human Milk. September 1986. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1651-2227.1986.tb10275.x
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Murínová, P et al. Partitioning of hexachlorobenzene between human milk and blood lipid..Environ Pollut. 2017 Oct;229:994-999. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2017.07.087. Epub 2017 Aug 1.PMID: 28778790
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Vermeulen, B.M. Campbell, J.S.I. Ingram. Climate change and food systems. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour., 37 (1) (2012), pp. 195-222
WABA Towards Healthy Environments for Children Q. Frequently asked questions (FAQ) about breastfeeding in a contaminated environment https://www.waba.org.my/whatwedo/environment/pdf/faq2005_eng.pdf
“…In a world as complex and interconnected as the one we live in, the idea that one person has the answer is ludicrous. It’s not only ineffective, it’s dangerous because it leads us to believe that it’s been solved by that hero, and we have no role. We don’t need heroes. We need radical interdependence, which is just another way of saying we need each other.”
In reference to the despicable maternal child health outcomes for birthing and lactating Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), Seals Allers implores us to stop having “this very individualized conversation about what is happening to Black women.”
“There is so much involved,” she says. “There is no single solution, and there never was a single source of the problem.”
It’s a tangle that calls for more than reduction, reusing and recycling.
Through an equity lens, Seals Allers uses Bruce Bekkar’s, MD, et al research to ask questions like “Why are there factories mostly in Black and Brown neighborhoods? Why were Black and Brown people driven to heavily populated urban areas?”
The association between air pollution and heat exposure with preterm birth, low birth weight, and stillbirth in the U.S., demonstrated in Bekkar’s research, is heavily influenced by systemic racism.
Flavelle goes on, “Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the problems could not be tackled in isolation. ‘We need to look at policies that provide equitable opportunities for communities of color,’ Dr. Hollis said. ‘If you address structural racism, I think you’re going to start getting at some of these issues.’”
Seals Allers echoes: “Stop problematizing Black women; look at the systemic solutions.”
Unsurprisingly, the “solutions” we tend to generate include pouring millions of dollars into synthetic milk instead of investing in breastfeeding and lactating people themselves.
“It’s very disturbing,” Seals Allers comments in her Facebook stream. “The solution is not around empowering women, it’s not about getting women breastfeeding, it’s about finding synthetic solutions. [There’s ] such a disconnect.”
Equally concerning in this case, is that the investment into a proposed solution for poor health outcomes related to not breastfeeding, comes from a climate change investment fund. Human milk is arguably the most sustainable food on our planet; why are sub-optimal, artificial substitutes getting so much funding instead of promoting policies and programs that support direct breastfeeding or pasteurized donor human milk?
The conundrum goes beyond the years of milk feeding onto complementary foods which offer corporations new opportunities to target families with Ultraprocessed Foods (UPF). Like artificial milk substitutes, UPFs pose environmental threats: processing takes natural resources and generates waste. Moreover, UPFs are often heavily marketed in underserved communities, so poor health outcomes continue to be compounded.
Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner Maffei recently attended a webinar sponsored by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) and the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPI) on UPFs and their relation to obesity, diabetes, and other health dangers.
“Presenters from India, Brazil, and Australia shared insights on the health impacts of UPFs, about the market and social forces at play, and also what we can do to advocate reduction in use of these engineered foods,” Turner-Maffei reports. “Brazil in specific has incorporated decreasing UPFs into their dietary guidelines and restricted use of government funds to purchase these foods for school food programs.”
BPNI has also created a WBW action folder. The document contains information on the carbon footprint of breastmilk substitutes and offers interventions required to support breastfeeding at four levels: policy makers, civil society and breastfeeding advocates, hospitals and doctors and parents.
Nothing is relevant if we don’t have a hospitable planet. Breastfeeding and appropriate, unprocessed complementary feeding are the roots of a healthy ecosystem that all humans benefit from.
Patti Rundall is the Policy Director Baby Milk Action, Global Advocacy IBFAN.
“We have been one of the most outspoken NGOs, calling for WHO to adopt a sound conflict of interest policy to safeguard its independence and resist the unjustified influence of powerful interests, be they commercial or political,” she writes in an email to Our Milky Way. “…All our criticisms are focused on supporting WHO in its unique role as the world’s coordinating authority in setting global health norms.”
Guterres goes on to say in that piece that it is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
Bill Gates on Twitter writes: “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s voluntary contribution to WHO is second to the U.S.’s assessed and voluntary contributions. [More here.]
Rundall adds: “WHO is needed to guide not only country responses to COVID-19 but also the host of other global threats that we face – not least global heating, new viruses, antimicrobial resistance and non-communicable diseases.”
Rundall explains that “the U.S. is not the only nation to lobby against the much needed increases of Member States assessed contributions, but it is one of the most powerful.”
“For goodness sake, WHO’s total annual budget of $2.5bn is about the same as the budget of a large US hospital,” she puts the money into perspective.
Even as many of us are feeling debilitated to some degree, Rundall offers suggestions on how to take action for good.
“We hope that US citizens– and especially anyone working in infant and young child health– will remember the critically important role that WHO has had in child survival,” she begins. “and do everything they can: write to politicians, media, social media, friends and distance themselves from President Trump’s statements about health.” [Link added.]
This photograph brings the kind of smile to my face that lifts my ears up several millimeters and presses the tops of my cheeks into my bottom lashes. The athletes are so expressive, I almost squeal in excitement as if I’ve just witnessed their victory.
“When the winners of the women’s 4x100m relay at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were announced, no one was more thrilled to win than the bronze medalist team from Nigeria. Teammates Beatrice Utondu, Christy Opara-Thompson, Mary Onyali, and Faith Idehen were relative outsiders in the international running scene and were not expected to stack up against powerhouses like France and the United States. Though injury and traditional cultural gender norms would threaten their chances of competing in those Olympics at all, they would leave Barcelona that summer as the first Nigerian women to win Olympic medals. Onyali eventually went on to become one of Nigeria’s most successful runners, appearing at the Olympics four more times.”
Underdog stories are always inspiring, and they’re happening every day when a woman becomes a mother.
“Stay open no matter what the circumstances the mother may be going through,” Rowell-Stephens offers. “[Mothers] have the ability and the capability to be the best moms, to flourish. Never underestimate a mother because motherhood drives women to be the best.”
She continues, “Support moms no matter what; whether it’s drug use or homelessness– I’ve seen it– motherhood really launches them into directions they never imagined they could go into.”
Rowell-Stephens and her colleague’s agency is just over a year old, and in that short time, they’ve managed to make a great impact on the lives of mothers and their new families.
“We are so excited about all that we are doing,” Rowell-Stephens says.
“Many Black people work, and breastfeeding at work is hard…
Black neighborhoods are also lacking in hospital practices supporting breastfeeding…
The societal stigma of breastfeeding is heightened for Black and brown people.”
These are big gaps to fill, but Rowell-Stephens and her team readily take on the challenge.
They make sure their clients receive proper prenatal care by connecting them with various health care providers including midwives and doulas. They provide nutrition counseling. They help them secure housing and jobs and continued education. They impact decisions about cigarette and drug use. They support them through mental health crises. They educate on how to navigate different stressors. They support healthy infant feeding and bonding.
“All of the nurses on the team are very passionate about breastfeeding so we love to see so many of our moms interested in learning to be successful at breastfeeding,” Rowell-Stephens comments.
“It is really going to change my practice overall,” she says.
Maybe most importantly, the team teaches their clients how to healthfully engage with their children.
“It makes me so excited to see these girls change their whole outlook on life,” Rowell-Stephens says of her clients when they become mothers.
She celebrates the story of one of her clients who set a personal goal to complete a rehabilitation program and acquire a living place before the birth of her baby.
“She accomplished that!” Rowell-Stephens reports.
Not long after, the mother’s roommate was using drugs in the home.
“Her motherly instinct kicked in and she knew she needed to get out of that environment,” Rowell-Stephens begins. “She recently found another apartment and she’s providing for her child.”
Rowell-Stephens goes on, “She’s taken what might seem like very small steps, but for her, as we look back at just this past 9 months, she has done so many things. She has changed the world around her.”