Boosting breastfeeding to mitigate climate change: A new tool illustrates the massive carbon and water footprints of commercial milk formula

Aug 01 2023

Researchers and advocates often argue that by increasing support for breastfeeding we can preserve water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now, a new tool developed by researchers at Australian National University and Alive & Thrive allows users to quantify these positive environmental impacts at the country level. Using publicly available datasets, the tool calculates the ecological impact of supporting mothers to breastfeed and reducing reliance on commercial milk formula.

The researchers, joined by a number of advocates, launched the Green Feeding Tool on World Environment Day in June during a global webinar.

“The Green Feeding Tool puts the power of data into the hands of policy makers, as well as advocates, environmentalists and climate change scientists,” said Julie Smith of Australian National University, who co-led development of the tool.

The production of food is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – as much as 40% of GHG is generated from farming, processing at factories, and distribution to points of sale. Dairy products, including commercial milk formula, are major contributors. The activities needed to produce commercial milk formula not only use fossil fuels, but they also require massive amounts of water and generate significant plastic waste.

Graphic depicting breast milk substitutes' greenhouse gas emissions

The new tool allows stakeholders to quantify the environmental impact of decreasing formula production by increasing support to women to breastfeed. It also demonstrates the adverse consequences of not protecting exclusive breastfeeding of infants in countries where breastfeeding is currently highly prevalent. The tool shows the increases in greenhouse gas from declining breastfeeding rates in the low- and middle-income countries of the world, and conversely, the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and water use that can occur if governments act to protect breastfeeding and reduce reliance on commercial milk formula. The tool’s developers hope the new information will strengthen calls for investment in breastfeeding as important for the health and well-being of both people and the planet.

“Global warming is not just a coal and gas problem – it’s a food systems problem,” Smith said. The production of commercial milk formula, which has grown dramatically over the last several decades into a $55 billion industry globally, is contributing large amounts of avoidable emissions of GHG worldwide.

Every kilogram of commercial milk formula (CMF) powder that companies produce generates eight to 14 kilograms of GHG – the equivalent of driving a car for about 35 miles. With billions of kilograms of CMF powder produced around the world, the GHG emissions are staggering: millions of tons of GHG stream into the atmosphere, exacerbating global climate change. We know that policies that support women who want to breastfeed also lead to a decrease in the sales of commercial formula milk. Using the Green Feeding Tool, we can now show the positive environmental impact of these decreased sales.

Smith says that heavy marketing of commercial milk formula to families in low- to middle-income countries has caused product sales to increase dramatically in the last decade and a half, a trend that experts expect will continue in the years to come. Advocates believe that tools like the Green Feeding Tool can help reverse this trend. “Massive marketing is undermining mothers’ abilities to breastfeed and it’s unethical,” said Alvia Hikmawati, head of the research division at the Indonesian Breastfeeding Mothers Association in East Java. “The Green Feeding Tool will help us advocate for laws to protect and promote breastfeeding.”

The Green Feeding Tool is currently available as an offline download, but a user-friendly online version will soon be available. Researchers recently published a policy brief describing the tool in a peer-reviewed international journal, he said.

“I’d like to acknowledge all of the mothers for their enormous contributions to the economy, to society and to the environment,” said Roger Mathisen, Alive & Thrive East Asia Pacific regional director. “We really want to illuminate [their] efforts and celebrate [their] contributions to mitigate climate change by calling on governments to invest more in breastfeeding protection, promotion and support.”

This work was funded by the FHI Solutions Innovation Incubator.



WHO report: How the Marketing of Formula Milk Influences our Decisions on Infant Feeding

Journal article: A Commentary on the Carbon Footprint of Milk Formula: Harms to Planetary Health and Policy Implications

Advocacy tool: Cost of Not Breastfeeding Tool

Advocacy tool: Mothers’ Milk Tool

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