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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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