Breast Milk is Environmentally Friendly — Formula isn’t

Concern about the planet is at an all time high and many people are keen to know how to reduce their impact on the environment. Although often overlooked and rarely mentioned, breastfeeding has a huge role to play in reducing pressure on our world. Breast milk is environmentally friendly, sustainably produced, healthy, nourishing and free. However, the reality is that only around 41% of babies are exclusively breastfed and 3.8 million tonnes of factory made infant formula are fed to babies around the world every year1. This article discusses how the manufacture of a breast milk replacement for millions of babies worldwide is harming the environment.

Mother sitting on a rock to breastfeed in a forest
Breast milk is environmentally friendly, sustainably produced, healthy, nourishing and free

Breastfeeding, formula and the environment

Breastfeeding does not harm the environment. International Baby Foods Action Network (IBFAN) explains:

Breastfeeding uses none of our planet’s scarce reserves of raw materials, water or grazing land, requires no fuel or energy to process and transport, and produces none of the carbon emissions, waste or pollution that contribute to the warming and degradation of our planet.

In contrast, production of breast milk replacement, often referred to as infant formula, is very energy and resource intensive. Making artificial baby milk requires land for raising and feeding dairy cattle, farming land for other ingredients, factory processing units, huge volumes of clean water, fuel heavy transportation systems, plastic and metal packaging, plastic bottles, teats, sterilising and heating equipment.

The environmental impact of formula

Industrial manufacture of baby milk contributes to waste disposal, pressure on natural resources, climate change, overpopulation and over burdened health care:

#1 Waste disposal and plastic pollution

A big issue facing the planet is domestic and industrial waste disposal for example there are over 200 million tonnes of waste to dispose of each year in the UK alone2. A particular concern is the amount of plastic waste which is difficult to recycle and takes hundreds of years to decompose 3. Plastic pollution is increasingly contaminating the world’s oceans and it has recently been discovered that even the rain contains micro plastics4.

How does infant formula contribute to waste pollution?

  • Agricultural waste. Disposal of agricultural waste from the formula industry e.g. cows’ manure and the fertiliser and pesticides used to grow their feed can pollute waterways and ground water.
  • Packaging waste. The formula industry produces millions of disposable cans of formula, single use plastic containers for ready-to-use formula, paper labels and promotional leaflets and requires millions of silicone teats and plastic baby bottles. An editorial in The British Medical Journal explains:

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.

#2 Depletion of natural resources

The formula industry requires substantial amounts of water and land putting pressure on natural resources:

  • Water. We all need water to live but in many parts of the world access to clean water is scarce. Dairy farms need huge volumes of water for cows to drink, and for cleaning and sterilising, cooling milk, irrigating crops for cattle feed and moving manure. It is estimated that one kilogram of cows’ milk yields about 200g of formula powder and the water needed to make one kilogram of formula powder is 4700 litres/1241 gallons (Shenker et al, 2019). More clean water is needed at the correct temperature to rehydrate formula powder and clean equipment.
  • Land for dairy farming. Dairy farming depletes natural resources when forests are cleared for grazing land. It is estimated that one kilogram of formula produced in Mexico involves the clearance of 12.5 square metres of rainforest5.
  • Land for other ingredients. There are many additional ingredients in processed baby milk and the production of each has a huge impact on the environment. For example formula contains refined oils and these have a very high carbon footprint 6. Palm oil plantations involve deforestation—particularly of tropical rainforests—contributing to global warming, habitat and species loss78. Rapeseed and sunflower oils are associated with high pesticide use and harming wild bees910. Soy is an ingredient in some formulas and is cultivated for animal feed. Soy farming is a major cause of rainforest destruction and uses pesticides and chemicals for fertilisation that pollute waterways11.

As powdered cows’ milk is nutritionally inadequate for a developing infant, formula is supplemented with additives such as palm, coconut, rapeseed, and sunflower oils; fungal, algal, and fish oils; and minerals and vitamins. Although it remains unclear whether these supplements are nutritionally and developmentally adequate, their production has an undeniable effect on the environment.

#3 Infant formula and climate change

What is climate change?

One of the issues of concern for the planet is climate change. Climate change, global warming or the greenhouse effect are all terms used to describe how the earth is gradually increasing in temperature. Activities that are said to cause climate change include burning carbon rich fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, petrol/diesel) for energy, and also deforestation and cattle farming. Because carbon based compounds are key players in global warming, sometimes our personal impact on the environment is described as our carbon footprint. Global warming is a concern as it is predicted to cause storms and floods, droughts, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, rise of sea levels, and displacement of people. 12

What causes global warming?

Burning fossil fuels and cattle farming create “greenhouse” gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) which tend to trap more heat causing the warming or greenhouse effect (like the glass of a greenhouse trapping heat from the sun). The concentration of these gases in the atmosphere is increasing exponentially1314 and cutting down forests hastens this effect as living trees absorb carbon dioxide and burning forests release high levels of CO2 and soot into the atmosphere.

How can infant formula contribute to climate change?

  • Cattle farming. Making millions of tonnes of industrial formula per year requires many herds of cattle to produce the cows’ milk from which processed baby milk is derived. Cattle produce the greenhouse gas methane through flatulence (farts!). The British Medical Journal editorial explains that dairy and meat production contribute 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases and that methane is 30 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas15.
  • Deforestation. The dairy industry involves deforestation to make way for grazing land, growing cattle feed and farming land for the various other ingredients needed to convert cows’ milk into a suitable product for babies.
  • Food miles. The distance or “food miles” a food item travels from producer to consumer is a measure of the environmental impact of that item. Producing over 3.8 million tonnes of formula every year from only 40-50 processing plants involves many food miles to send the finished product to end users (Shenker et al, 2019). China for instance imports formula from Europe, New Zealand and Australia due to lost confidence in local milk following the melamine scandal in 2008.1617
  • Fuel consumption (industry). Making and marketing artificial baby milk requires large amounts of energy (fuel) to run farms and factories to process cows’ milk, manufacture bottles and teats, packaging cans and plastic bottles.
  • Fuel consumption (home). Reconstituting powdered formula requires fuel to heat water/sterilise the product for the end user. One estimate suggests the energy of boiling kettles to formula feed in the first 12 months of life in the UK alone is equivalent to charging almost 200 million smartphones (Shenker et al, 2019).

What research found

A study in 2012 looked at the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from formula milk production in six countries. The report estimated total emissions to be 2.89 tonnes equivalent to 6888 million miles driven by car, or burning 3107 million pounds of coal. These figures included emissions from the ingredients and manufacturing processes but didn’t include GHG emissions due to transport and distribution of formula, packaging or waste disposal or those arising from preparation in the home (boiling water/sterilising). The report also highlighted the significant role played by “follow on formulas” and “toddler formulas” which are deemed unnecessary by regulatory bodies and are unnecessarily adding to the climate burden.18

#4 Overpopulation

Overpopulation is one of the main causes of man’s negative impact on the environment; the sheer numbers of people present in many cities puts increasing stress on the environment with demand for more and more housing land, farming land, clean water and basic resources. Breastfeeding has a contraceptive effect, which helps to space children and so reduce the number of offspring. Formula has no such effect so in this respect it can have a significant role to play in family size. In addition, breastfeeding delays menstruation (monthly bleeding) for an average of 14 months meaning fewer resources are needed by way of pads, tampons or cloths.

  • Breastfeeding prevents more births than all other forms of contraception put together (it is also one of the few methods of birth control that does not need resources, packaging, health worker time, etc).
  • In Bangladesh, breastfeeding prevents an average of 6.5 births per woman.

#5 Pressure on health care

Breastfeeding has health benefits for mothers and babies. Healthier populations with fewer illnesses and allergies need less health care and less medications using less resources19. Climate change is predicted to influence human health due to the effects on food prices and production, food safety, poverty, and different disease patterns such as increased infectious illness20.

Promoting breastfeeding, reducing formula

Breastfeeding is an extremely important way to help the planet due to the environmental cost of the man-made alternative and the scale of the formula industry which currently involves around 60% of all babies born across the planet. More awareness is needed across society of the environmental value of breastfeeding as well as the health benefits for mother and child. Alongside this awareness, mothers need more support to breastfeed successfully. The British Medical Journal editorial explains that a cultural change in attitude towards breastfeeding is needed:

A multitargeted approach is required, including investment in medical education so doctors can support and signpost mothers if difficulties arise, improved antenatal information and care enabling parents to develop feeding plans alongside birth plans, better access to screened donor milk from a regulated milk bank when supplementation is needed, and increased numbers of certified lactation consultants. Cultural change is long overdue to remove the myriad obstacles to breastfeeding faced by new mothers.

Finding support

This website has lots of information to help mothers breastfeed successfully such as A Good Start to Breastfeeding and Breastfeeding Tips for Newborns. There are also many International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) and breastfeeding charities offering friendly mother-to-mother support and breastfeeding counsellors to help mothers succeed with breastfeeding.

Summary

Making millions of tonnes of a processed food such as infant formula, is very energy and land intensive, creates huge amounts of waste products for disposal and has the potential to contribute to global warming and climate change. In contrast, making breast milk doesn’t need factories or transportation systems, does not create pollution or toxic waste, doesn’t require deforestation, unsustainable farming practices or pesticide use, creates no packaging waste and is free. Breastfeeding instead of formula feeding is an effective way to reduce our carbon footprint on the earth and mothers need support and information to breastfeed successfully. Breast milk is environmentally friendly — formula isn’t.

It is time to start talking seriously about how reducing the unnecessary promotion, use and societal costs of formula milk feeding can help tackle the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, sustaining Mother Earth.