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Is breastfeeding an environmental issue?


The other day a mama I know blushed as she was talking about nursing with me and said, “But I guess breastfeeding isn’t really an environmental issue.” It is something that I think is important, but is it an environmental issue? There are three components of “green” that apply to this question: impacts on the environment, impacts on health, and economics.


Mothering Magazine’s Eco-Mama, Wendy Correa, has this to say about the environmental benefits of breastfeeding: “Breastmilk is a valuable renewable natural resource that is the most ecologically sound food source available. It is produced and delivered to the consumer without using other resources, and it creates no pollution.”

And Peggy O’Mara, editor of Mothering Magazine, describes the intensive resource use of formula. In the U.S. alone, she says, we use 550 million cans of artificial baby milk a year (1997 numbers). If lined up end to end, the cans would circle the earth 1 ½ times. These cans are also responsible for 86,000 tons of tin waste and 1,200 tons of paper waste.

O’Mara further describes the impact of formula: “Manufacturing formula requires miles and miles of cows. Each grazing cow that produces milk for artificial baby milk needs about one hectare (10,000 square meters) of land. To create enough land for cows to graze on, forests are cut down, which leads to deforestation, which in turn contributes to soil erosion and water contamination; or land is used for cattle that was previously used to grow food for families. In addition, cow flatulence and excretion account for 20 percent of the world’s total annual emissions of methane. While methane is second only to CO2 in contributing to greenhouse gases, it is much more destructive of ozone than is CO2.” A similar equation could be used around soybeans, an alternative to milk, which use significant pesticides, water, and petroleum resources in their production and distribution.

O’Mara also asks us to consider the energy used in heating baby formula: “One study determined that producing one kilo of formula in Mexico costs 12.5 square meters of rain forest.” In the U.S., this cost is less noticeable, but there is still an energy cost to transporting and heating formula.

There are 1 ½ million infant deaths linked to formula use each year. Just last week, 700 tons of formula manufactured in China was recalled after it was discovered to be laced with melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastic. The formula caused serious kidney problems in hundreds of babies and has so far been responsible for at least two infant deaths.

What about the health aspect of formula when it isn’t contaminated? The National Resource Defense Council says this: “The fungal toxin aflatoxin has also been detected in some commercial formulas. Although detected levels were very low, this toxin is known to cause cancer and is not present in breast milk. Infant formulas also may contain excessive levels of metals, including aluminum, manganese, cadmium and lead. Soy formulas are a particular concern due to very high levels of plant-derived estrogens (phytoestrogens) in soy products.” As well, studies have found low levels of pesticide residue in infant formula.

The AAP has just revised its statement on soy-based formula saying that its use is rarely warranted. Soy-based formulas have come under scrutiny and have been considered for bans or health-warnings in Canada, New Zealand, and Israel. Soy formulas have been found to be hard to digest, to contain more aluminum than milk-based formula, and to also contain phytoestrogens, which are considered to be endocrine disruptors. Soy formula is being studied for possible links to development problems in children’s brains and reproductive systems.

Now, the FDA has found that the suspected endocrine-disruptor BPA is leaching from the lining of metal cans into formula, especially ready-made liquid formulas. According to a new EWG analysis, “Bottle-fed infants likely face higher BPA exposures than any other segment of the population.”

But, what, of the environmental hazards that find their way into breastmilk? One of the most powerful books I’ve read recently (and one I recommend to all expectant parents) is Having Faith: An Ecologists Journey to Motherhood. In it, she looks at the ecosystem of a mother’s body; how we have learned the hard way about poisons that cross, and sometimes even magnify, through the placenta. At the top of the food chain, says Sandra Steingraber, are not adult humans, but nursing babies. Mercury in our water and fish? It finds its way into breastmilk. Flame retardants that act as neurotoxins? Found in US breastmilk at an amount 75 times higher than in our European counterparts. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

The Kelly Mom website has a calculator that allows you to determine the typical cost of formula-feeding versus breastfeeding. Just looking at the basic cost of formula versus things like possibly getting a breast pump and a nursing bra, a family can save between $714 and $3,000 a year by breastfeeding. This does not include healthcare savings.

The site also links to numerous studies that look at the healthcare costs of NOT breastfeeding. One study says that, “A minimum of $3.6 billion would be saved if breastfeeding were increased from current levels (64 percent in-hospital, 29 percent at 6 months) to those recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General (75 and 50 percent).” Another study puts a number on what families can save in healthcare costs. In a six-month period: $1,435.00.

Breastfeeding is so good for the baby, the environment, and the bottom line, that it is well worth any time or money you will spend to give it a try. (The La Leche League is a great source of free information and support for breastfeeding and the group can also help you find a lactation consultant should the need arise.)

What is a mother to do?
Well, according to just about every known source: the World Health Organization, La Leche League, Mothering Magazine, Environmental Working Group, and the American Academies of Pediatricians and Family Physicians, and almost all other science and health groups: a mother should breastfeed if she can. In the U.S. most of the institutions say for at least one year and the W.H.O. recommends two. In fact, breastfeeding, besides having wide-ranging benefits such as antibodies, perfect nutrition, and being linked to lower cancer rates for mom and baby, higher IQs and less general illness for babies, has also been linked to helping infants overcome some of the harmful effects linked to high fetal exposure to persistent chemicals.

The fact that breastmilk is best shouldn’t be the end of the dialogue. What does it mean as a culture that our environment has gotten so polluted that even babies can’t escape potentially harmful levels of exposure? It is not really a choice for families to have to choose between FORMULA which
is always nutritionally at a disadvantage to breastmilk, and is sometimes tainted, sometimes pesticide-ridden, always without the benefit of antibodies, and always wasteful and BREASTMILK which is nutritionally perfect, immune-supportive, and now almost always tainted by environmental chemicals.

As well, there are many wonderful mothers who can’t breastfeed for many, many reasons: adoption, health, psychological reasons, and many more. Or, sometimes a woman is forced to supplement her breastmilk because of any of the above reasons or more. Below are some tips for minimizing health and environmental hazards with bottle-feeding.

Tips for healthier bottlefeeding
1.    Find safer baby bottles, either glass or bottles marked BPA and phthalate free.
2.    If you have to use formula avoid using the liquid formula which is associated with higher levels of BPA leaching.
3.    Always use clean, filtered water. (Try to avoid bottled water.)
4.    Buy organic formula (babies cannot detoxify like adults and pesticides present a heightened risk to developing brains and bodies).
5.    Look out for added sugars, like sucrose, in infant formula! (Similac’s organic formula has been caught using sucrose–i.e. cane sugar–instead of lactose.)
6.    Consider making your own formula, or supplementing your powdered formula. (This isn’t for everyone. You should talk with your doctor, midwife, or other nutritionally-savvy healthcare professional first. Here are some websites to help:,, REMEMBER: Soymilk and rice milk aren’t fit for babies and straight cow’s milk isn’t enough alone.)
7.    Remember that nursing isn’t just about breastfeeding, its about bonding, loving, and nurturing. All this can still be done when bottle-feeding.
8.    There are breastmilk banks that can provide supplementary breastmilk (e.g. in the case of a premature baby, twins or triplets, a health situation for the mother, etc.).

Additional comments on this blog can be found at The Little Green People Show.

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