Human Milk: The Most Sustainable Food in the World?

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In the 1970s, the late, great Dr. Derrick Jelliffe said that “breast is best”. This soon became the mantra of tens of thousands of breastfeeding advocates. Now, a similar but different mantra is “sustainable food.” These discussions often mention dairy foods, but no one seems to call out formula as a “dairy food”. So I ask: how could we justify formula as a sustainable food source?

Human milk might possibly be the most sustainable food in the world. Taking a page from Sustainabletable.org—but kicking it up a notch—I posit that there are eight reasons why formula is not a sustainable food.

Formula does not help protect the environment

In my interview with environmental journalist Jennifer Grayson, we only touched on the environmental impact of formula. There are no clear, indisputable statistics that we are aware of. However, La Leche League estimates that for every one million formula-fed babies, 150 million containers of formula are consumed.

Admittedly, some of those containers could be recycled, but many end up in landfills. The Surgeon General reminds us that breastfeeding, however, “generally requires no containers, no paper, no fuel to prepare, and no transportation to deliver, and it reduces the carbon footprint by saving precious global resources and energy.”

Formula does not promote personal health

Are you aware of any literature that implies that formula promotes personal health for either the mother or the baby? No, me either. If food doesn’t promote personal health, how can it be classified as sustainable?

Formula does not promote public health.

To promote public health, formula would need to have documented evidence of superiority over the alternative—human milk. Public health issues, such as infectious disease, diarrheal disease, and obesity, diabetes, for example, have all been strongly associated with the use of infant formula.

Formula is unlikely to save family farms

Admittedly, I don’t know where the big formula companies find cows to produce formula. But knowing that formula-making is a multi-billiondollar a year business, a great volume would be needed. Hence, it’s difficult for me to fathom how that could be accomplished on family farms only.

Formula does not promote animal welfare

Okay, again I plead ignorance. But if you were the cow, how would you feel about this? You would be given antibiotics, hormones, and be hooked up to a milking machine every day. Your udders would often be full, and you’d have mastitis. And oh-by-the-way—after going through all of this, your milk would be to the offspring of another species!

How can formula protect farm workers?

Here’s what SustainableTable.org says: “Studies have shown that when factory farms enter communities, they replace local farmers, causing a downturn in the local economy. They are often too large to be locally supplied and can cause a decrease in property values. In addition, the pollution from these farms endangers the health of the community and negatively impacts the local environment.”

How does formula empower and protect farm workers?

Again, I’m presuming that formula comes from cows on industrial farms. And such farms are more likely to hire migrant workers. Industrial farms are a source of toxic fumes and piles of manure. You might even make the case that female migrant workers have a compromised experience of bearing and breastfeeding their own children.

If it were a sustainable source, it would taste good!

Yeah, this is the kicker, isn’t it? Sustainable food tastes good. I’ve often said that formula tastes like paste.

We need to widen discussions about breastfeeding. The “breast is best” mantra is necessary, but insufficient. Few, if any of us, have thought about formula-feeding as an unsustainable food source.

I know I’ve met several of you who own cattle farms. Any comment for you? Any comment from anyone else?
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