I recently woke up to a headline with the words “climate” and “hope” strung together. As author Jeff Brady points out, it’s “…something you don’t hear much when it comes to climate change: hope.” 

Brady goes on to illuminate a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report that shows “countries are setting records in deploying climate-friendly technologies…” 

There’s more: “While greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, the IEA finds that there’s still a path to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s what’s needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as catastrophic flooding and deadly heatwaves,” he writes.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

It’s hard to imagine that we’re in a place where there’s still the potential for “the worst effects.” Are we not already there? 

Not long ago, when extreme weather occurred, we were told it wasn’t possible to link specific events to the climate crisis. Now though, scientists have figured out a model to represent how the climate crisis produces specific weather events like hurricanes and extreme heat.

Extreme weather events and other disasters and emergencies will continue to occur, so it’s imperative that we develop infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E) preparedness in the U.S., something we are seriously bad at.  

Jennifer Russell’s, MSN, RN, IBCLC, NHDP-BC, Ph.D. Candidate in Nursing Science from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center co-authored Domestic Preparedness Journal article “Challenges with pediatric mass care feeding,”(p 27-31) details the importance of and how state, local, tribal, and territorial organizations’ (SLTTs) can “safely, effectively, equitably, and quickly provide pediatric feeding support” in emergencies. 

Namely, the authors state: “SLTTs must estimate and plan for the logistical distribution and cost of breastfeeding and re-lactation supplies along with safe alternatives to mothers’ breastmilk and other pediatric feeding items.” The authors bust some common misconceptions about emergency response and offer ways in which we can improve existing guidance. 

Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash

In her most recent guest post on Our Milky Way, “Nourishing Children and the Planet”,  Healthy Children Project’s Donna Walls considers the critical weather events of late and highlights the urgency of education, legislation and action.

Walls points out that lactation care providers (LCPs) and health advocates can and should take a leading role in the fight for the health of our planet.  LCPs are important actors within the greater need for national-level policy development, and LCPs’ work helps to mitigate the more grandiose challenges of the climate crisis.  

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The first best food for infants is mother’s own milk. We all know about the benefits for mothers and babies, but we don’t often discuss the benefits for the health of the planet.

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

This is a win-win situation. By providing our infants and children with cleaner, “greener” foods, we also create a cleaner, safer environment for our families, our communities and the world. 

By contrast, commercial milk formulas (CMFs) are harmful to the planet because they require procurement of ingredients and manufacturing and transport of the product. All of these processes use resources and contribute to the increasing burden of greenhouse emissions. Read Powdered Baby Formula Sold in North America: Assessing the Environmental Impact for a detailed look at the environmental and Greenhouse Gas impact of powdered baby formula, which as the authors note, “should be considered when developing and funding infant and young child feeding policies and supportive programs.”

Water resources are scarce in many countries around the world, and yet “about 5000 litres of water are used for every kilogram of milk powder, including producing the milk, then processing the powdered milk, preparing the feeds, and sterilising feeding equipment.” (Linnecar, van Esterik, 2023).  Unnecessary use of precious water resources threatens the very survival of children across the globe.

It’s true that “the few extra litres of water required by a breastfeeding mother are negligible compared to the amounts of water for formula production and preparation.” (Linnecar, van Esterik, 2023

Destruction of natural resources, such as the rainforest for harvesting ingredients as well as ever-mounting pollution from plastics is creating a negative impact on the environment ultimately contributing to rapid climate change. 

By supporting breastfeeding families,  LCPs can be the first line of defense by reducing pollution and minimizing the powerful effects of the climate crisis. Breastfeeding  is, without doubt, the cleanest, “greenest” form of infant nutrition. 

Ultra processed foods (UPFs) impact on  health

What’s more, we have evidence that breastfed infants consume less ultra processed foods (UPFs) as they get older (Paharia, 2023). 

UPFs not only strain our resources but have been shown to increase rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and dementia further straining resources as communities struggle to care for sick individuals. Shockingly, research shows “67% of children’s calories come from empty ultra processed foods” in the U.S. (Berg, 2022).

Food additives– “any substance not normally consumed as the food itself and not normally used as a typical ingredient of the food, whether or not it has nutritive value” (FAO, Codex Alimentarius, 2021)– frequently found in UPFs, present a myriad of concerns including central nervous system disruptions, hyperactivity or other behavioral or neurological issues in children. (Health Effects Assessment: Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children, 2021

Predatory marketing lulls families into believing that these convenient food sources are not harmful. Information and research about the toxicities and harm is usually assigned to the small print or not disclosed at all. 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published information on several food additives that are especially troubling. These include:

  • Nitrates and nitrites- meat preservatives  linked to stomach cancer, esophageal cancer, and possibly brain and thyroid cancers
  • Propyl paraben- a preservative in pastries shown to cause developmental and reproductive harm.
  • Food dyes (especially red and yellow dyes) linked to cancers
  • Potassium bromate- carcinogen found in baked goods
  • BHT and BHA- preservatives in foods are possible carcinogens
  • Titanium dioxide- color additive implicated in DNA damage
  • PFAS- known as forever chemicals used in food packaging which has been shown to leach into foods. These are known to increase the risk of cancer, damage to the immune system and hormone disruption. 
Food additives’ impact on environmental health 

According to Lempart-Rapacewicz, et al, the latest literature classifies food additives as one of the groups of so-called Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs), defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and United States Geological Survey (USGS).

These chemicals are not naturally occurring, and so require manufacturing resources ie; water, energy, systems for disposal of by-products and waste and packaging materials, to either develop or alter the final product.  Pollution of our air and water are well documented consequences of this type of manufacturing. 

These  substances are also found in sewage where current processes are unable to remove them from the systems, leading to concerns of the micropollutants in the ground and water tables. 

Additives such as ascorbic acid might sound harmless, but when found in large quantities,  alters the pH of water and soil, affecting the basic growing medium for plants and crops. Ongoing research investigates the long-term consequences on plant and crop properties and the effects on biodiversity. Some studies have found mutagenic and teratogenic effects on fish and aquatic vegetation after exposure to food additives. ( Lempart-Rapacewicz, et al, 2023)

Plastic ingestion

Infants and children can be especially susceptible to  exposure to micro or nano plastics–plastics so small they are measured in micrometers or nanometers (microplastics are plastic particles under 5 millimeters in size, and nanoplastics are under 0.001 millimeters in size). They’ve been detected in many of the foods we eat,  in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Micro and nanoplastics are absorbed into our bodies through food packaging or in infants and children through feeding bottles and teats, baby food containers and pouches. Significantly more particles are released when the food containers are heated in the microwave (Hussain, et al, 2023).

Photo by Zeesy Grossbaum on Unsplash

The health effects of ingesting plastics are not completely understood yet, but early research implicates micro and nano plastics in imbalances in the microbiome, altered lipid metabolism, reproductive system, brain and lung dysfunctions. 

More on environmental degradation

In 1962,  Rachel Carson wrote the groundbreaking book Silent Spring, sounding the alarm about the use of pesticides and herbicides. Concerningly, as a nation, we have yet to heed her warnings. 

Use of these powerful chemicals is negatively impacting plants by causing them to produce less phytonutrients– the vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy. 

Scientists are finding “dead zones” in bodies of water, areas that are so polluted they can no longer sustain aquatic animals and plants on account of run off of these toxins. Disruptions in the ecosystems have led to the rapidly changing climate and instability of our weather patterns.

Since the publishing of Carson’s book, micro and nano plastics have been found to inhibit the growth of healthy microbiota in aquatic animals and have also been shown to obstruct the digestive system of marine organisms such as mussels and oysters. 

Scientists note increasing contamination of agricultural soils with these particles, reducing plant growth and overall productivity (Amboyne, et al, 2021). Soil contamination negatively affects inhabitants such as earthworms and nematodes resulting in changes in the soil microbiome.

Learning to live in balance
Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

On an individual level, tackling the catastrophic challenges spurred by the way we produce and consume food, is insurmountable and requires system-level action;  however, there are resources for families to consult when working to make the healthiest choices for their families. Beyond breastfeeding,  families can check out theEWG’s  “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” listing of foods to find the most budget-friendly way to provide cleaner, organic foods. There is no question that organic foods are the healthiest. 

When we learn to live in balance with the natural world, the health of both flourishes.  It can sometimes seem an uphill battle to create a cleaner, greener world but as individuals, and collectively, it is our privilege and responsibility to do whatever we can. One person at a time, one family at a time, one community at a time. One of my life-long favorite quotes is from Margaret Mead, and it is as important now as when she wrote it in 1978: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has”. This seems to be the time for those committed to caring for mothers and babies to also commit to caring for Mother Earth as well.

More resources to consult

Global Nutrition Report 

Green Feeding Tool

IBFAN’s Health and Environmental Impacts

Report on CARBON FOOTPRINT DUE TO MILK FORMULA: A study from selected countries of the Asia-Pacific region

Register to attend  Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies: Preparedness Systems for Communities to Keep Our Babies Safe webinar hosted by U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) on November 1 from 2:00 – 3:30 pm ET. The session will provide an overview of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E) toolkit, share current research exploring personal experiences and disaster-related factors that influence breastfeeding, describe how NACCHO has supported communities in emergency preparedness for maternal and child population.



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