The global uptake of commercial milk formula is harming our planet, but parents aren’t to blame. Fortunately, simple policy solutions can support breastfeeding, health and climate action.

The link between breastfeeding and global climate change may strike some people as unusual. And, frankly, it is complicated and multifaceted. The long and the short of it is that breastfeeding does not generate greenhouse gases (GHG), and policies for increasing its uptake would make a crucial contribution to reducing emissions and the harms of climate change.  

Despite the clear health importance of breastfeeding for babies and mothers, less than 50 per cent of infants under six months are exclusively breastfed worldwide. Fewer than 15 per cent meet this recommendation in Australia. 

Breastfeeding is a clean and safe source of all the nutrients needed in the first months of life, provides antibodies that help protect against many childhood illnesses, and reduces the long-term risks of obesity and diabetes. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers for mothers.   

Sadly, the use of commercial milk formula (CMF) in place of breastfeeding is dramatically increasing – substantially driven by harmful and unethical marketing by manufacturers.  

The escalating manufacture, distribution and use of CMF globally not only pours out massive amounts of GHG, but also uses huge volumes of water. This industry is a potent driver of global climate change that must be curtailed.  

Emissions begin on farms with the energy required to produce raw milk, and especially the methane expelled by dairy cows. Photo: yod67/adobe.stock.com

It is now well recognised that more than one-third of global GHG can be attributed to food production and the manufacture of CMF significantly contributes to this. In excess of two million tonnes of CMF for infants and young children were sold globally in 2018, generating emissions of a minimum of 14 million tonnes, and as much as 28 million. At least 10 million cubic meters of water were also used. 

Emissions begin on farms with the energy required to produce raw milk, and especially the methane expelled by dairy cows. Manufacturing feed for cattle is also emissions-intensive, as is managing their manure. 

Factories processing the milk, oil and other ingredients into powdered products generate even more emissions, and the manufacture of packaging and transportation of products to shops and homes yet more.  

Substantial emissions and waste are also generated at household level. For example, sterilisation of bottles is vital to avoid contamination but is energy- and water-intensive. Large quantities of mixed formula must be discarded for safety.  

As well as generating GHG emissions of 11 to 14 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for every kilogram of powder, the whole process uses huge amounts of water. For a baby to be fed a kilogram of CMF, a whopping 5,000 litres of water is needed.  

Stopping marketing misinformation from boosting sales

The aggressive marketing of these emissions-intensive processed dairy products to mothers and families clearly violates the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, enacted in 1981 by the World Health Assembly. This marketing commonly promotes misinformation, including using dubious strategies such as ‘carbon neutral or ‘green’ claims and imagery to improve social licence and tap consumers’ interest in sustainable or environmentally friendly products.  

Violations of the code are commonplace. An AI-powered tool developed by Alive and Thrive, a global maternal, infant, young child and adolescent nutrition initiative, has been scanning the internet for violations and has identified thousands in its first few weeks of use.  

The problem is not starting in far-flung developing nations, but with exporters—including Australian companies—that are key culprits in expanding global markets.  

‘Greenwashing’, or making false claims about how environmentally friendly formula is, is an increasingly prevalent marketing practice under scrutiny by regulators in Australia and elsewhere. The industry spends upwards of US$3 billion a year on marketing. 

In fact, a study of Irish baby milk exports to China estimated that gains from meeting global nutrition targets for breastfeeding far exceed any environmental benefits of using more energy efficient manufacturing practices.  

In Australia, a taxpayer funded review of industry self-regulation offers faint hope that the government will have the courage to fully implement the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes – including monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, and covering toddler formula and related products under its scope. 

We urgently need to equal the CMF industry’s marketing spend to better promote breastfeeding in the media and via mass communication efforts.  

Disabling greenwashing and similar tactics is a key policy solution to reduce GHG emissions from CMF, with co-benefits to health. 

Changing policy not parenting

The solution is simple and targets policies not parents. We need to improve the policy environments around breastfeeding so that exclusive breastfeeding is the default, well-supported decision for all mothers. 

One of the simplest ways to support breastfeeding is to give mothers the time to do it. Consider what happened in Canada when, in 2008, legislators increased maternity leave from 25 to 50 weeks. The exclusive breastfeeding rate shot up by almost 10 per cent overnight.  

Using the new Green Feeding Tool, developed by a team of researchers I co-led at The Australian National University (ANU) in partnership with Alive and Thrive and FHI Solutions’ Innovation Incubator, we estimated that this reform led to a reduction of almost 10 million kilograms of GHG emissions.  

Australia had a similar experience when the Gillard government introduced 18 weeks of paid maternity leave in 2011, with breastfeeding rates increasing by four per cent for children aged up to 12 months.  

There was a two per cent increase in breastfeeding among infants up to six months, which alone reduced annual emissions by at least 2,000 tonnes (an equivalent weight to 13 blue whales) and water use by 945 million litres (around 300 Olympic swimming pools) compared to previous years. 

This is unfinished business and Australia lags far behind other countries.  

Environmental harms will escalate if CMF markets continue to expand in developing countries like China and India.  Photo: MurielleB/adobe.stock.com

Achieving significant impacts quickly is possible if we increase assistance for breastfeeding across society.  

This also means more support for hospitals to implement the WHO’s 10 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, governments and employers to increase paid maternity leave and develop lactation programs, and new approaches to ensure women working in the informal sector can also have these entitlements.  

The need for action is urgent. Global warming is changing the planet at the same time as the CMF industry is rapidly expanding in many countries. Worldwide breastfeeding rates have increased very little over the past two decades, while CMF sales have more than doubled.  

For example, in Nepal twice as many babies were being bottle fed in 2022 compared to 2016 and the number of children exclusively breastfed for six months dropped from 66 per cent to 57 per cent in this period. If this exclusive breastfeeding was displaced in the future by formula feeding, the extra CMF used would produce an additional 176,000 tonnes of emissions, which is equivalent to 451,184,590 miles driven by an average petrol-powered passenger vehicle.  

We already know breastfeeding is the foundation for good health. We know its effects on cognition contribute to education gains and productivity, and the economic success of every country.  

Now, with the Green Feeding Tool—designed to provide policymakers, climate scientists, advocates and others with clear data about how increasing support for breastfeeding can help save the planet—we have the evidence to support action. 

The tool uses data on exclusive breastfeeding and birth rates, as well as on GHG generated and water used in the manufacture and use of formula, to show the emissions attributable to the CMF industry by country. 

This means we can clearly see how much those emissions could be decreased by policies providing support for women to meet their breastfeeding goals. And also how global environmental harms from suboptimal infant feeding will escalate if CMF markets continue their rapid expansion in large developing countries like China and India.  

The recent publication on this tool describes some key results from policy action, or inaction, on breastfeeding across the globe, and introduces the case for the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism to fund policies to protect, promote and support breastfeeding as a carbon offset in developing countries. 

With this information at hand, and gains for women’s and children’s health, the case for policymakers to do more to back breastfeeding as part of our climate action agenda is a no-brainer.  

Top image: Africa Studio/adobe.stock.au

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