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Can Breastfeeding Help The Environment? This Tool Says Yes.

Mar 27 2024

Green Feeding Tool illustration

The Green Feeding Tool makes the case for breastfeeding support as a legitimate carbon offset initiative. Carbon offset frameworks like the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism currently overlook interventions involving food, health, and care systems, including breastfeeding.

The Green Feeding Tool shows that in lower- and middle-income countries, the aggregate consumption of commercial milk formulas by infants under 6 months results in annual emissions ranging from 5,900 to 7,500 million kg of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses and consumes 2,562,500 million liters of water.

In another word, universal exclusive breastfeeding among infants under 6 months in lower- and middle-income countries could–in a year–save greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 80,000 round-the-world flights. It’s under these circumstances that taking actionable and natural steps–such as breastfeeding–can contribute to environmental protections. 

In addition to using preloaded data, users can utilize newer national data, subnational data, data from a group of countries, or any hypothetical data. This option is typically useful when preloaded data is not available (e.g., in most high-income countries).

The tool also offers the capability to estimate scenarios for policy changes in breastfeeding practices. 

For example, the increase in paid maternity leave in Canada in 2008 resulted in a rise in exclusive breastfeeding from 23.1% to 31.5%, leading to a reduction in commercial milk formula consumption from 6.1 to 5.4 million kg, equivalent to a decrease from 85.5 to 76.1 million kg CO2 equivalent.

The tool was created in part by Julie Smith, honorary associate professor and ARC Future Fellow at The Australian National University, with support from Alive & Thrive and the Innovation Incubator at FHI 360 Global Nutrition. 

Smith said the tool is valuable for a variety of users, including policymakers, advocates, researchers, and individuals or their breastfeeding supporters. 

“It can be used to advocate for breastfeeding protection, support and promotion as a ‘carbon offset’,” she said. “A carbon offset is a reduction in GHG emissions to make up for emissions elsewhere. For example, an activity such as a project, program, or policy that results in higher breastfeeding rates might create carbon credits that can be counted as an ‘offset’ to emissions from other activities. This could be part of funding schemes devised to create markets in GHG emission reduction, to achieve global targets for reducing emissions and mitigating climate change.”

Smith added that breastfeeding does not generate greenhouse gasses, and policies for increasing its uptake would make a crucial contribution to reducing emissions and the harms of climate change. 
“We already know breastfeeding is the foundation for good health,” she said. “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.”

During its launch, people from around the world showed interest in it, and it has continued to draw interest. 

In December 2023, Tuan Nguyen, technical advisor in Measurement, Learning and Evaluation at Alive & Thrive, traveled to the UAE to attend the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28).
During this event, he presented the Green Feeding Tool in a site event titled “Technology, AI, and innovation for transformative climate action in sustainable agri-food systems.” This presentation showcased the Green Feeding Tool, contributing to knowledge, skills, and connections that further the work related to climate change and health. 

During COP 28, Nguyen used a bookmark as an “elevator pitch” about the tool and was very successful in drawing people into the tool. "I distributed nearly 200 bookmarks using this method. You have to be there to witness the joy on their faces when they can access the tool by scanning the QR code. The information and the tool reached the hands of significant individuals, including Dr. Tedros, the Director-General of WHO," Nguyen said.

About the author: Kristi Eaton is a journalist and communications consultant for Alive & Thrive.

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