Supporting Breastfeeding to Save the Earth

As you sit and gaze into your baby’s eyes while you nourish your little one with your sweet warm milk consider, you are saving precious resources that cost the earth – literally.

This isn’t about shaming mums who for whatever reasons do use infant formula, it’s about acknowledging that if we gave more support to women who want to breastfeed, we could have a significant impact on the environment.

A study published in the British Medical Journal notes: ‘breastfeeding uses few resources and produces minimal or zero waste. The associated infant and maternal health outcomes produce healthier populations that use fewer healthcare resources. The production of unnecessary infant and toddler formulas exacerbates environmental damage and should be a matter of increasing global concern.’

Carbon Footprint

The food industry, particularly dairy and meat production, contributes around 30% of global greenhouse gases. Most infant formula is cow’s milk based. Methane production from livestock is second only to production by the oil and gas industry, and methane traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere 30 times more potently than carbon dioxide.

Researchers show that breastfeeding for the first six months of life could save anywhere from 95-153 kg CO2 equivalents for each baby. Thus, helping mothers in the UK alone to exclusively breastfeed their babies would reduce carbon emissions equivalent to reducing road traffic by 50,000 to 77,500 cars each year. On top of this, infant formula can be made safely only with water that has been heated to at least 70°C. In the UK, the estimated energy cost of boiling kettles for families that formula feed over the first year of life is equivalent to charging almost 200 million smartphones!

Toddler formula

Interestingly, over half of these greenhouse gases come from commercially manufactured ‘toddler milk’ which is totally unnecessary and, according to the report, may potentially cause harm.

Toddler Formula was created by milk powder companies as a marketing ploy in response to the World Health Organisation code that prevents marketing of infant formula for young babies – it not only helps to brand particular formula, but it may also create anxiety about your toddler’s nutritional requirements. Toddlers’ appetites naturally decrease as growth slows during the second year and as long as you provide nutritious, natural food options, your child will regulate his food intake according to his appetite and growth requirements. As well as offering a variety of family foods, breastfeeding your toddler will continue to provide significant nutritional and immunological benefits. (the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding up to two years and beyond) If you are no longer breastfeeding, whole cow’s milk can be offered after one year.

Resources and landfill

Costs to the environment include water usage - up to 4700 litres of water are needed to produce just a kilogram of powdered cow’s milk, that’s an enormous water footprint. Then there are metal, paper, plastic waste and transport costs: A 2009 study showed that 550 million infant formula cans, comprising 86, 000 tons of metal and 364, 000 tons of paper are added to landfills every year; the formula industry has more than doubled since then.

The nutritional content of powdered cows’ milk must be boosted by adding various vegetable oils: palm, rapeseed, coconut, or sunflower oils along with fungal, algae and fish oils and a range of vitamins and minerals - these contribute a significant impact on the environment.

Transport costs

Only around 50 formula processing plants exist worldwide, producing about 3.8 million tonnes of infant formula each year and it’s not only food miles transporting raw ingredients to the processing plants, but the finished product needs to be shipped worldwide to families. For instance, China imported almost 180,000 tonnes of prepacked infant formula in 2015, over 90% of which was from Europe. A significant amount is shipped from Australia, often purchased from pharmacies that would normally be close to the end users.

What can we do?

According to the report, urgent investment in breastfeeding support is needed including:

• Changing attitudes and education of health professionals so breastfeeding is valued and mothers having difficulties can be helped appropriately and quickly;

• We need to provide better antenatal education and care so mothers can create breastfeeding plans as part of their birthing plans; • Availability and access to Certified Lactation Consultants – IBCLC Lactation consultants are allied health professionals who have completed specific training, education and documented hours of practical experience helping mothers breastfeed.

• Investment in human milk banks to supply safely screened breast-milk when mothers need to supplement babies due to various factors that may impact breastfeeding, from health issues of mother or infant, to separation due to mothers returning to work.

The report concludes: We need to acknowledge that "our house is on fire” and that the next generation requires us to act quickly to reduce carbon footprints in every sphere of life. Breastfeeding is a part of this jigsaw, and urgent investment is needed across the sector.”

Check here to see The British Medical Journal report with all references