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Human Milk: The Most Sustainable Food in the World?

Women feeding her baby sustainable human milk in a field.

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. Similarly, we now hear discussions of  “sustainable foods.” 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 – but kicking it up a notch – I say that there are eight reasons why formula is NOT a sustainable food. 

1. Formula does not help protect the environment

In my interview with environmental journalist Jennifer Grayson, we only touched on the environmental impact of formula. We are not aware of any clear statistics. But, La Leche League estimates that 150 million containers of formula are consumed for every one million formula-fed babies.

Admittedly, some of those containers get recycled. But, many end up in landfills. However, the Surgeon General reminds us that breastfeeding, “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.” 

2. 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. How can we call a food sustainable if it doesn’t promote personal health?

3. Formula does not promote public health

Formula would need to have documented evidence of superiority over the alternative – human milk – in order to promote public health. But, a variety of public health issues such as infectious diseases, obesity, and diabetes have all been strongly associated with the use of infant formula. 

4. Formula is unlikely to save family farms

I admit I don’t know where the big formula companies find cows for production. However, knowing that formula-making is a multi-billion dollar a year business, a great volume would be needed. Therefore, it’s difficult for me to imagine that family farms alone could produce enough. 

5. Formula does not promote animal welfare

How could the making of formula possibly promote animal welfare? If you were the cow, how would you feel? You would be given antibiotics, hormones, and be hooked up to a milking machine every day. In addition, your udders would often be full, or overfull. You would be at risk for mastitis. After going through all of this, your milk would be given to the offspring of another species! 

6. How can formula protect farm workers?

Here’s what says: “Studies have shown that when factory farms enter communities, they replace local farmers, causing a downturn in the local economy. It is difficult for local supplies to meet the needs, and factory farms 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.” 

7. How does formula empower and protect farm workers?

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

8. If it were a sustainable source, it would taste good

Yeah, this is the kicker, isn’t it? Sustainable food tastes good. On the other hand, 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. Above all, human milk is a sustainable food source.

Have you given thought to the lack of sustainability of formula as a food source? I know I’ve met some of you who own cattle farms. What are your thoughts? Share your comments in the section below!

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