Glints of hope and control in a burning world

As I gathered my thoughts for an Earth Month and infant feeding installment, I got an email notification that Valerie McClain had published something new on her Substack. Of course I hurried over, because her pieces are always illuminating. She writes in Standing on the Precipice:  “We are self-destructing on our Mother Earth, and she may be the last woman standing amidst the rubble and miles of corpses.”

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-little-kid-touching-tree-with-hand-3932861/

In all of the pieces and years past that we have covered the connections between infant feeding and planetary health, it never actually occurred to me that there might be a scenario where Mother Earth outlives us. This will surely strike some of you as naive, absurd, delusional, or something else considering what has happened and continues to happen on our planet. Even so, I envisioned humans dying alongside our planet, our self-destruction agonizing and inevitable, as we claw, infect, and deplete Mother Earth with our beastly antics, taking down the innocent in our path to complete decimation. 

On a recent trip to The Museum of Modern Art, I was shaken out of this sense of Doom and flurry of eco-emotions. Victor Grippo’s lead containers with beans first spoke to me, metaphors “for the force and persistence of life”. This display coupled with Niki de Saint Phalle’s phrase “What is now known was once only imagined” infused me with a little glint of hope that I’ve been craving. 

Then on a Throughline episode about consumer protections and trust in and accountability from companies and elected leaders, I heard the voice of Ralph Nader. He offered: Cynicism is “a cop-out. That’s an indulgence. That’s an indulgence of quitters that makes them feel good. Because when you’re cynical, you’re obviously smart, aren’t you? You think you’re smart. No, you’re not smart. You’re playing into the hands of the corporate supremacists. You’re playing into the hands of the few who want to control the many who could easily outvote the few and make the corporations our servants, not our masters.” This offered me a shift in perspective too.

Source: https://www.gifa.org/en/international-2/green-feeding/

Among the hopeful is coverage of the Green Feeding Tool by Kristi Eaton. Eaton quotes Julie Smith, co-creator of the tool: “…with the Green Feeding Tool—designed to provide policymakers, climate scientists, advocates and others with clear data about how increasing support for breastfeeding can help save the planet—we have the evidence to support action.”

Now, consider this headline: Breast milk can expose babies to toxic ‘forever chemicals’

“For decades, physicians and scientists have touted breast milk as liquid gold for its immunological benefits.

But nursing parents with considerable exposure to cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,’ or PFAS, may unwittingly be exposing their babies to these compounds as well…” the author begins. 

The article acknowledges contaminated water could be a potential source of PFAS which infant formula is often mixed with. The author also includes that “the benefits of nursing likely outweigh the potential risk of PFAS exposure through breast milk.” [Note the language used here. There are generally no benefits to breastfeeding. Instead, there are risks associated with not breastfeeding.] 

Nikki Lee asks some important questions: “Why doesn’t formula get tested for these chemicals?  Do folks believe that somehow cows are protected against pollution?”

As with anything, there will be risks associated with any variation of infant feeding. 

Healthy Children Project’s Karin Cadwell points out that if toxins are being detected in human milk, it means we need to reconsider the products being used in industry.

Photo by willsantt: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-breastfeeding-her-toddler-under-the-tree-2714618/

The author of Study Finds High Levels of Toxic Chemicals in Mothers’ Breast Milk quotes Erika Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future who shares a similar sentiment: “’If we want to make pregnancy and breastfeeding safe and free from PFAS, we really need to eliminate the use of these chemicals and products, so that we can have clean food, clean air, and clean water… We really don’t believe that responsibility should be placed on individuals when we need regulations to end the use of these chemicals.’”

In the predicament(s) we find ourselves in, I’d like to leave you with a few more of McClain’s words: “A mother cannot control events such as: wars, sieges, shortages of infant formula and pitocin, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes; but she has a semblance of control in her and her baby’s world through breastfeeding. Dependency on always having access to infant formula, health care, freedom from human or environmental violence, should be tempered with the reality that there may be times, when all the civility of life vanishes.” 

More for Earth Month 

Industry lies and the Code

Infant feeding and planetary health go hand in hand 

Breastfeeding is eco-friendly 

Goats and Soda’s How do you keep calm and carry on in a world full of crises?



Recent happenings linking maternal child health and planetary health

Late this autumn, I went for a hike with my family that moved me to tears. As I looked over the rolling foothills cascading in green, its beauty, while simultaneously reflecting on the horrors in this world, provoked a surge of emotion like the swell of ocean waves just over the mountain range we perched upon. 

I shared this experience with one of my dearest mentors and she replied: “I also find nature a powerful midwife and teacher about life. I remember being moved to tears by redwoods standing firm bearing deep gouges and gaping wounds from lightning strikes and subsequent fires… yet continuing to grow and foster another generation.” 

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-little-kid-touching-tree-with-hand-3932861/

When I returned to my neglected inbox after this respite hiking and exploring new-to-me land, I came across the juxtaposed images of a human fingerprint and the dissection of a tree trunk suggesting that ‘we are nature’. 

With my mentor’s poetry in mind and the concept of “human nature,” I’d like to invite you to explore the following happenings, documents and projects as they all pertain to the inextricable connection between planetary and human health and the influence of infant and young child feeding practices on greater population health, a concept coined One Health

First up, the 46th Session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC46) came to a close this month. The CAC is a UN body established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1963 with a mission to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) participated in the session, and as the organization reports:  “After more than a decade of challenging negotiations within the industry-dominant Nutrition Committee, the Revision of the 1987 Follow-up Formula Standard has been officially adopted this week – now renamed the Standard for Follow-up Formula for Older Infants and Product for Young Children.

Thanks to the relentless advocacy efforts of IBFAN, WHO, UNICEF, public interest NGOs, Brazil, Ecuador, Nigeria, and numerous [other] countries, the new standard now makes specific references to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and relevant WHA Resolutions in a Preamble. Despite sustained opposition from the USA, these safeguards were retained during CAC, although some of IBFAN’s warnings were removed from the CAC46 report.” 

You can find more detailed coverage at the Baby Milk Action blog here

Also this month, WHO hosted a webinar covering the release of the new WHO guideline for complementary feeding of infants and young children 6-23 months of age

Dr. Francesco Branca began by pointing out some hopeful news.

“The past decade we have seen important gains in improving maternal and child nutrition, including a one-third decline in the proportion of children suffering from stunting, and a tend point increase in exclusive breastfeeding on the way to reaching the 2025 World Health Assembly nutrition target of 50 percent of infants below six months exclusively breastfed. Yet multiple forms of malnutrition, poor growth, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight continue to jeopardize children’s ability to survive and thrive…” 

Dr. Larry Grummer-Strawn summarized that while some of what is in the report is repetitive, there are several key updates. 

For instance:

  • “Milks 6–11 months: for infants 6–11 months of age who are fed milks other than breast milk, either milk formula or animal milk can be fed… Milks 12–23 months: for young children 12–23 months of age who are fed milks other than breast milk, animal milk should be fed. Follow-up formulas are not recommended… (p. 15)
  • “Starchy staple foods should be minimized. They commonly comprise a large component of complementary feeding diets, particularly in low resource settings, and do not provide proteins of the same quality as those found in animal source foods and are not good sources of critical nutrients such as iron, zinc and Vitamin B12. Many also include anti-nutrients that reduce nutrient absorption. (p. 24) 
  • “Foods high in sugar, salt and trans fats should not be consumed… Sugar-sweetened beverages should not be consumed… Non-sugar sweeteners should not be consumed…Consumption of 100% fruit juice should be limited…” (p.32) 

There is also an emphasis on responsive feeding (pages 43 to 47). 

Around 38 minutes into the recording of the webinar, Grummer-Strawn recognizes the reality of consumption of unhealthy food and beverages, the convenience of UPFs and calls on the need for broad policy actions to protect child health. 

Finally, Conference of Parties (COP) 28 wrapped up this month. At COP27, Healthy Children Project’s (HCP) Karin Cadwell presented research on the environmental impact of powdered baby formula milks in North America and HCP’s Kajsa Brimdyr on skin-to-skin contact (SSC) in the first hour after birth as a simple and easy, inexpensive, appropriate for all dyads with countless benefits intervention. (Read more coverage here.) 

Notable from this year’s session, among other important endeavors, includes work by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) like the Children, Cities and Climate Action Lab and a partnership to understand how floods and heat driven by climate change affect the delivery of maternal and child health care in Brazil and Zambia

For further reading on climate action, check out Hidden Brain’s newsletter blurb:

“Psychologists have studied how to raise awareness about climate change and get people to take action on the issue. The answer can vary depending on a range of factors, like culture, age, gender, political ideology — the list goes on. An international team of scientists behind a recent paper has created a tool that shows which messages and interventions are most effective with different demographics. ‘To maximize their impact, policymakers and advocates can assess which messaging is most promising for their publics,’ said study co-author Kimberly Doell, who also helped lead the project. Check out the tool for yourself here.

Green Feeding

Guest blog post collaboration with Donna Walls,  RN, BSN, IBCLC, CLC, ANLC

At its core, Green Feeding means taking action from birth to safeguard the health of humans and the environment.

Photo by Akil Mazumder

Green Feeding encompasses the promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding as the most valuable natural resource from 0 to 36 months of age.

In May 2019, the International Baby Foods Action Network (IBFAN) in partnership with the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi), published Green Feeding–climate action from birth, issuing a plea for awareness on the impact of infant feeding practices on the environment and to promote breastfeeding which nurtures a healthy population and planet.

Green Feeding practices should continue beyond exclusive breastfeeding. When complementary foods are introduced at six months of age, guidelines include:

  • foods which are naturally occurring foods (such as plants and animals),
  • minimizing processed (foods prepared with salt, sugar, oils such as canned fruits or vegetables or simple cheeses),
  • culturally appropriate, family foods which rarely contain concerning levels of sugar, salt, fats, and toxic additives,
  • and the avoidance of ultra processed foods (foods altered by processing and additives not normally found in foods like dyes, preservatives, stabilizers). Infant formulas fall into the category of ultra processed foods.

 

Human and planetary health interplay 

Breastfeeding is a frequently ignored topic by global climate action leaders despite it being an almost cost-neutral intervention with a huge impact on human and planetary health.

Photo by willsantt

“Recent studies have highlighted the environmental cost of decades of disinvestment in services to support breastfeeding,”  the authors of Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative write. “When breastfeeding is encouraged and supported the associated infant and maternal health outcomes produce healthier populations that use fewer healthcare resources.”

Authors of Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices? note that breastmilk is a “natural, renewable food” that is environmentally safe and produced and delivered to the consumer without pollution, unnecessary packaging, or waste.

By contrast, breastmilk substitutes leave an ecological footprint and require energy to manufacture, materials for packaging, fuel for transport distribution, and water, fuel, and cleaning agents for daily preparation and use, and numerous pollutants are generated across this pathway.

Human health is often sacrificed for business interests and profits; the “bottom line” is about dollars and not  families’ precious health.

The Green Feeding advocacy document continues to spell out the interplay between human and planetary health through the lens of healthy infant and young child feeding (IYCF).

As a renewable natural food resource, mother’s milk contributes to local food and water security and biodiversity.

Differently, the run-off of waste from dairy farming used in artificial milk development, threatens our water supply with contamination by toxic chemicals, pesticides and harmful microorganisms.

The global food system, from production through all stages of processing, distribution, food preparation and consumption, accounts for an estimated 19 to 29 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Animal-based food products generally have a higher climate impact than plant-based foods, due to emissions from feed production, manure management and, in the case of ruminant animals, enteric fermentation, as noted in The carbon footprint of breastmilk substitutes in comparison with breastfeeding.

Not breastfeeding poses the risk of multiple avenues for exposure to toxic heavy metals like contaminated foods and artificial baby milks and contaminated water.   Municipal tap water, groundwater or well water is used to reconstitute powdered formulas and cereal foods and can contain high levels of toxic chemicals. This same water is used for cleaning feeding equipment and for drinking. The risk is increased because powdered formulas and foods prepared with water are the sole or the major source of food and drink at the most vulnerable stage of infant and young child development.

“Exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity. Toxic heavy metals endanger infant neurological development and long-term brain function,” according to a 2021 IBFAN report.

Plastic pollution is a huge environmental concern made worse by the need for bottle feeding supplies and consumption of single-use articles.

Green Feeding contributes to the work of social justice and poverty reduction, offering protection to the most vulnerable infants and their families, creating a “level playing field” for family budgets. It challenges inequalities in marginalized households and communities that are most negatively impacted by climate change. The high cost of infant formula and ultra-processed baby foods can overwhelm low and middle income households.

 

Green Feeding begins prenatally

There’s a growing body of research connecting prenatal and early life toxic exposures to poor health outcomes.

Photo by Thiago Borges

For example, high urinary metabolite concentrations for several prevalent phthalates were associated with greater odds of delivering preterm, and hypothetical interventions to reduce phthalate exposure levels were associated with fewer preterm births. The most consistent findings were for exposure to a phthalate that is used commonly in personal care products like nail polish and cosmetics, noted by the authors of Associations Between Prenatal Urinary Biomarkers of Phthalate Exposure and Preterm Birth: A Pooled Study of 16 US Cohorts

Things like air pollution, heavy metals, phthalates, plasticizers (PCB) and per- and poly-fluoroalkyl acids (PFASs) which are produced during industrial manufacturing and are widely used in consumer items such as food packaging and non-stick cookware have been known to lead to childhood liver disease, development of diabetes and developmental delays in children.

Endocrine disruptor exposure prenatally and early in life also present a major concern to children. Dozens of these endocrine disrupting chemicals are found in pesticides, personal care products, flame retardants and are found in the air, water and foods. They mimic the female hormone estrogen and thus interfere with the action of the body’s natural hormones which influence reproduction, immunity, metabolism and behavior. More on endocrine disruptors can be found in Endocrine disrupting chemicals and the battle to ban them.

In studies from the University of Rochester Medical School, it was found that wistar rats exposed prenatally to environmental estrogens resulted in damage to the alveolar cells of the breast to the extent that the mother rats were unable to nourish their offspring, as documented in Dioxins In Food Chain Linked To Breastfeeding Ills. 

Authors LaPlante and Vandenberg note reduced milk production in mice exposed to 17α-ethinyl estradiol, and less “mothering behaviors” in rats exposed to environmental estrogens, including reduced nesting behaviors and pup retrieval have also been documented.  These, and other studies, show a concerning trend in the future care of offspring.

 

Eliciting change from the top down 

UNICEF’s 2022 report Places and Spaces: Environments and Children’s Well-Being calls on national, regional, and local governments to make protection of children’s environmental health a priority. Clean air, water and food make up an essential foundation for infant and childhood health. Creating a cleaner, healthier environment begins with the cleanest first food, breastfeeding, and continues with toxic-free foods throughout childhood and adolescence. Taking these steps now reduces the risk of food-induced illnesses including childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, neurodevelopmental delays and immune dysfunction. While we continue to see the predatory marketing of altered foods claiming to offer health benefits, there is no evidence that any of these are superior in any way to clean, naturally occurring foods.

 

Eliciting change from the bottom up 

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small thoughtful, committed group of citizens can change the world: indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Photo by Nandhu Kumar

Advocate for breastfeeding. Join local breastfeeding support groups and talk about the risks of not breastfeeding for mother, infant, and the environment. Connect with “breastfeeding adjacent” groups such as breast cancer advocates or prenatal and infant information groups or toddler play groups.

Talk with local stores selling maternity or infant care products about the opportunity to present this information to customers. Use social media to help spread the word.

Stay politically aware of legislation and contact your local, state or federal representatives and let them know why and how you support breastfeeding and climate-friendly actions. The United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) is a great launching pad for this type of activism.

If you, your family or friends need to use infant feeding bottles, teats and other products, find safer alternatives like non-plastic infant feeding bottles and plant-based food storage containers.

Connect with local health food or natural food stores, local organic farms or community assisted agriculture groups to brainstorm ways to distribute recipes and meal ideas for cleaner, healthier foods. Local food pantries can also be a great starting point to connect with community resources to encourage healthier family foods.

Local childbirth education and doula groups can also be a great resource for connecting with pregnant or new families to discuss feeding choices.

Many local gardening groups may have information on growing and preparing natural, organic foods.

Join food cooperatives wherever possible and offer education to families on breastfeeding, clean foods and safer food storage/preparing/serving utensils.

Join civic groups in starting community gardens in public spaces, schools, churches and housing complexes.

 

Additional resources to explore 

Safely Fed Canada

Assessing the environmental impact of powdered baby formula sold in North America

The Unseen Dangers of Ultra Processed Foods

Breastfeeding for the Health and Future of our Nation 

Carbon Footprints Due to Milk Formula. A study from selected countries of the Asia Pacific region

Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review

Food safety, climate change, and the role of WHO

Food safety considerations for commercial complementary foods from global operational guidance on infant and young child feeding in emergencies

Plastic-free parenting 

Ensuring Safe and Toxic-Free Foods Act of 2022

Protecting Brain Development in Children: Neurotoxic Effects of Phthalates and Need for Critical Policy Reform webinar

 

Breastfeeding is eco-friendly.

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is eco-friendly.

Planetary protection has never been more crucial, and the undeniable relationship between planetary health and human health has never been more evident.

In November 2022, world leaders, policy-makers and delegates from nearly 200 countries attended the COP27 UN climate summit, held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Fabrication of Bodies Joined by a Molecule of Air(2022), by Invisible Flock and Jon Bausor, manufactured by MDM Props Limited in Lebanon, represented by Architect & Engineer Karim Attoui. ©Courtesy of Invisible Flock. https://invisibleflock.com/portfolio/bodies-joined/

Presenters made poignant remarks about the climate crisis we find ourselves in.

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations said.

Sherry Rehman, Minister of Climate Change, Pakistan argued that  “The dystopia has already come to our doorstep …”

Mark Brown, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, shared, “Our survival is being held to ransom at the cost of profit and an unwillingness to act despite the ability to do so.”

On Decarbonization Day of the summit, Dr. Abla Al Alfy convened a panel of speakers who presented on the importance of the 1,000 Golden Days and the relationship between the climate crisis and mother baby health. [You can access the United Nations Egypt’s recording here which starts at 19 minutes in.]

Dr. Nevein Dous, UNICEF health specialist, covered infant mortality rates, micronutrient deficiencies, mental health challenges, among other global health challenges and called for the integration of services rather than siloing health strategies.

WHO

Frederika Meijer with UNFPA Egypt highlighted UNFPA’s work confronting medical violence and reducing the country’s cesarean section rate which soars over 60 percent.

Meijer brought light to the need to create resilient health systems that will withstand the inevitable shocks of the climate crisis.  She noted the important role skilled midwives play in the reduction of unnecessary c-sections, giving way to the work of Dr. Kawther Mahmoud, President of the Nurses Syndicate, Assistant Undersecretary for Nursing and head of the Central Department for Nursing in Egypt, who helps lead the national plan for the midwife.

Many presenters emphasized the importance of family planning counseling and the environmental and health implications of pregnancy spacing.

Dr. Naeema Al-Gasseer’s remarks drew attention to a recent WHO report which states that “Almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, and threatens their health.”

Dr. Camilla Kingdon, President of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, further described that 26 percent of child deaths under 5 years of age have an element of environmental cause like heat waves, water scarcity, vector-borne diseases and flooding. UNICEF has identified that air pollution will be the leading cause of death for children by 2050, she shared. Additionally, there is a clear link between air pollution and miscarriage. Dr. Kingdon went on to describe the prevalence of visible air pollution particles on the placenta.

WHO

In connection to these harrowing accounts, Healthy Children Project’s Dr. Karin Cadwell presented research on the environmental impact of powdered baby formula milks in North America. Read about that work here.

Healthy Children Project’s Dr. Kajsa Brimdyr acknowledged the mess we are in and noted how many solutions that may contribute to planetary and population health are expensive and complex. Skin-to-skin contact (SSC) in the first hour after birth though, is simple and easy, inexpensive, is appropriate for all dyads, and touts priceless benefits.

Brimdyr noted just some of the benefits: SSC in the first hour after birth decreases infant mortality by 25 percent in low birth weight (LBW) infants, decreases transfers to the NICU,  decreases maternal stress and depression, improves paternal parental stress, and allows baby to self attach to the breast improving maternal confidence in breastfeeding and increasing breastfeeding rates overall.

The effects of SSC in the first hour extend far beyond the first hours, the first days and first weeks of life. Feldman et al. (2014) followed mothers and their premature infants who had been in SSC and control groups for 10 years. They found that children who had been in the SSC group had better cognitive development, better autonomic nervous system functioning, and mother–child interactions were more reciprocal 10 years later.

Photo credit: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Silke Mader of the European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants (EFCNI) and her colleagues are fighting for SSC and breastfeeding support for all dyads. Mader calls for a zero separation policy which is supported by evidence even in the context of the pandemic, she reported. Mader added that fathers and partners are not second-class citizens and should be included in the policies that help shape proper parent infant bonding.

As the climate emergency becomes more and more bleak, breastfeeding is a safeguard for infant and young child health. Read our coverage on infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E)  in Prioritizing infant and young child feeding in emergencies during National Preparedness Month and beyond and National Preparedness Month: the U.S.’s deficit in Infant and Young Child Feeding preparedness during emergencies.

COP27 held the first-ever Youth-led Climate Forum ensuring that young people have a place in the conversation about the climate crisis. More on that here.

 

More resources to explore  

RCPCH Climate Change Working Group

Baby Milk Action’s coverage on COP27

Breastfeeding can help tackle climate crisis but it’s on governments, not mums to save the world

The climate crisis is a health crisis short video

 

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As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, tell us: Where have you seen predatory marketing of breastmilk substitutes?

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.