Benefits for the environment

How does breastfeeding help our planet?

Infant formula feeding has a negative impact on the environment. Infant formula has to be manufactured, packaged, and transported, often for long distances, because there are only 40 to 50 infant formula processing plants in the world. It takes 4,700 litres (1,241 U.S. gallons) of water to make one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of milk powder, one report says, and packaging produces hundreds of thousands of tons of waste that is added to the environment and landfills every year. Infant formula manufacturing contributes to climate change through the release of carbon dioxide and methane into our atmosphere. Unless stopped, climate change will negatively affect our health and social stability and have an even greater effect on the health of our children.

A) Overview of the environmental impact of infant formula-feeding

The environmental cost of infant formula feeding is significantly larger than that of breastfeeding (Karlsson 2019). The latter requires only that mothers eat a little more food (about 600 calories to make 800 ml of breast milk each day) which may be locally produced and drink roughly an extra three cups of liquid each day.

To make cow’s milk-based infant formula, cows must be grown, fed, bred, and milked and the milk needs to be skimmed, pasteurized, dried, packaged, and stored. It is then processed with other ingredients, repackaged, and prepared for the baby. It may need to be reconstituted with boiled water. Various ingredients and finished products must be transported over long distances.

Feeding tools such as bottles and nipples are manufactured, transported, and ultimately discarded along with infant formula packaging.

These processes may result in: 

  • Contributing to climate change through deforestation and the release of greenhouse gasses
  • Ground water contamination
  • Soil erosion
  • Reduction in biodiversity
  • Waste generation

In 2010, global infant formula production was estimated to be 1.8 million metric tonnes (2.0 million U.S. tons) (IBFAN 2014). This increased to 2.6 (2.9) in 2015 and may be as high as 3.9 (4.3) in 2020. China in particular, has been a large and fast-growing market (Potier 2016).

B) Describing climate change

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for the past 800,000 years

1) Describing climate change

Climate change is the single, largest global health threat of the 21st century (Buttler 2018; Costello 2009; Ripple 2019; Sibbald 2013).  

Human activity has dramatically increased the levels of certain gases in our air. These gases act like a greenhouse and trap heat. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide followed by methane and then several other gases such as nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons. The main source of carbon dioxide is the use of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas, oil shale, bitumen, tar sands, and heavy oils) to create energy.

2) Proof of climate change

Based on air bubbles trapped in mile-thick ice cores in the Antarctic and other evidence, researchers have shown that during the climate cycles of the past million years or so, carbon dioxide was never more than 300 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution started in the mid-1700s, the global average amount of carbon dioxide in our air was about 280 ppm (Lindsey 2019).

On May 9, 2013, the daily average carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Volcanic Observatory in Hawaii surpassed 400 ppm for the first time on record (Lindsey 2019). If global energy demand continues to grow and to be met mostly with fossil fuels, a child born today will experience a world that is more than four degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average (Watts 2019) and carbon dioxide in our air will likely exceed 900 ppm by the end of this century (Lindsey 2019).  

3) Effect of climate change on our planet

Rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gases are shrinking and thinning ice caps, raising sea levels, increasing humidity, and creating more extreme weather conditions and events, including heat waves, floods, droughts, hurricanes, and fires.

The world’s oceans have absorbed some of this carbon dioxide and become 30% more acidic threatening fish and coral reefs (Porter 2014).

C) The negative effects of climate change on our health

Climate change increases the risk of:

  • Heat- and cold-related illness and death
  • Extreme weather events resulting in:
    • Interruptions in education, employment, and health care
    • Displacement
    • Food insecurity 
    • Mental stress
    • Injury and death
  • Illness caused by:
    • Air pollution
    • Contaminated water sources
    • Infection transmission
  • Increased UV exposure because of atmospheric ozone depletion
  • Food shortage
  • Social inequality
  • Socio-political instability

By 2030, 2.3 billion people are projected to live in fragile or conflict-affected contexts. (Clark 2020).  

Children are more affected by climate change than adults. For example, the worldwide production of all major crops has been decreasing and children often suffer the worst effects of undernutrition (Watts 2019). As they are growing, they use more air, water, and food per kilogram of body weight than adults, making them more susceptible to the effects of air and water pollution (Buka 2019). In emergencies, they are the most likely to die.

D) How infant formula use increases climate change

Increased breastfeeding rates will improve infant and adult health while helping to reduce greenhouse gases(Binns 2021; IBFAN 2014; Joffe et al.  2019).

A kilogram (kg) of infant formula adds between 11 and 14 kgs CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases to the planet by the time it is fed to babies and young children (Cadwell et al. 2020; Karlsson et al. 2019).

1) The production of milk

Keeping cows for milk production results in the release of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide [CO2], methane, nitrous oxide) that trap heat in the atmosphere. Methane is a gas that is 30 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Methane production from cows and other livestock is second only to production by the oil and gas industry.

2) The manufacturing of infant formula

There are only about 40 to 50 milk processing plants in the world. These are concentrated in milk-producing and exporting countries. This means that many countries import powdered milk for infant formula from these countries, which results in increased fuel consumption for transportation and greenhouse gas release.

Infant formula requires many ingredients ( oils, minerals, sugars, vitamins, stabilizers, emulsifiers, and others) that have to be manufactured or processed, transported, and combined into infant formula resulting in greenhouse gas release at each step.

3) The preparation of infant of infant formula

Heating of water needed to safely prepare infant formula requires energy. The energy cost of boiling kettles for infant formula in the U.K. alone equated to over 1500 tonnes (1653 U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide.

E) The effect of infant formula use on water resources

Consider the following negative effects of infant formula use on water resources (IBFAN 2014; Joffe 2019).

1) Water waste

Cows require large amounts of water to produce milk. Water is also used in the processing of cow's milk and manufacturing of other infant formula components:

  • Fifty litres (13 U.S. gallons) of water are needed to produce 30 millilitres (1 U.S. fluid ounce) of cow's milk-based infant formula (Stuebe 2020).
  • Between one and six months of life, a baby takes in about 800 ml (27 oz) of milk each day; this amount of infant formula would have been produced using 1,333 L (352 gal) of water.

In comparison, a mother only needs to drink a little more than 1 litre of liquid to make 1 litre of breast milk.

More water is used to clean and sterilize bottles and teats.

2) Water contamination

Keeping cows for milk production may result in water contamination by (FAO and GDP 2018):

  • Chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphorus.
  • Dangerous microbes.
  • Antibiotics and other drugs given to cows.

3) Changes in water cycles

Keeping cows changes the land and can affect how water travels across it (FAO and GDP 2018).

F) The effect of infant formula use on land

Keeping cows for milk production results in (FAO and GDP 2018):

  • Deforestation.
  • Damage to ecologically sensitive areas.
  • Overgrazing and soil erosion.
  • Reduction in the types of organisms inhabiting an area (biodiversity).
  • Increased fertilizer use.

G) The creation of waste by infant formula use

Consider the creation of waste by the use of infant formula. (IBFAN 2014; Joffe 2019).

Infant formula use produces waste. In the U.S., 550 million cans, 86,000 tons of metal, and 364,000 tons of paper are added to landfills every year because of infant formula use (Coutsoudis 2009).

When mothers infant formula-feed, their menses are often back as soon as 6 weeks after delivery. Breastfeeding mothers may not have their menses until a year or more after giving birth. The delay in the return of the menses brought on by breastfeeding reduces the number of menstrual pads and tampons which end up in landfills or incinerators.

infant formula-feeding increases the risk of illness in mothers and babies. Medical care and hospitalization produces waste that must be safely processed and discarded. This increases greenhouse gases from transportation and incineration. Antibiotics can enter waste water resulting in contamination and antibiotic resistance (Jendrzejewska 2018).

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