The carbon footprint of infant milk formula

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We’re used to hearing about the health benefits of breastfeeding, both for mothers and babies. But what about the health benefits for our environment, both small and large scale? Has it ever occured to you that infant formula requires mass production by the dairy industry, as well as plastics and other wastes in mass packaging and bottle paraphernalia – and we’re talking about millions of babies – in fact two thirds of all babies – consuming formula as human breastfeeding rates drop.

Julie Smith wrote this challenging article for the September 2016 edition of Essence, the Australian Breastfeeding Association‘s magazine.

Nearly a year ago, in December 2015, governments meeting in Paris agreed to do something about climate change. Negotiations were high level. The links between human health, climate change and the environment hardly rated a mention amidst the detailed accounting for lost profit and reduced emissions. And no one mentioned the world’s mothers and babies, or the environmental consequences of how most of the infants and children are now fed.

Around two thirds of humans are inappropriately fed processed food in early life. Much of this baby food is manufactured in countries which are hundreds, even thousands of miles away from where it is sold. Much comes from milking another species — a cow — grazed on pastures created from clearing forested land.

If all the immense resource costs of formula feeding were properly accounted for, the baby food industry would be closed down and mothers paid to breastfeed.

Economists call such unattributed resource costs ‘externalities’. Industry can ignore such costs, as they are instead passed on to society, or inflicted on the environment. By distorting incentives, externalities result in markets failing to give producers and consumers the right signals to conserve our common resources. In the case of mothers and babies, this means suboptimal nutrition resulting in higher health care costs for society, as well as for families. Likewise, when environmental consequences of the dairy industry are not fully accounted for in business decisions, costs are imposed on communities — increasingly on humanity as a whole — by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, land degradation and loss of biodiversity.

Methane gas emanating from dairy herds is one of the most potent forms of greenhouse gas and is a key element of the global greenhouse gas problem. Methane gas results in more damaging effects than other emissions. The greenhouse gas emissions for every kilogram of raw milk are comparable to driving a car 10–20 kilometres, even without accounting for the energy costs of manufacturing the milk powder. Clearing the land for dairy farming creates its own damage to environmental diversity as well as in removing the Earth’s innate ‘carbon sinks’ — its forests.

A recent study published in Public Health Nutrition drew attention to the unprecedented  global transition to milk formula for infant and young child feeding.1 This has been particularly evident in the Asia Pacific region and foreshadows significant future population health issues as well as adverse macroeconomic and health cost impacts due to detrimental effects on maternal and child health and development.2-5  The boom in milk formula sales in these emerging middle-income countries is attributed to factors including lack of maternity protection for breastfeeding, unregulated company marketing of baby foods and inadequate support for breastfeeding by health services and health professionals.

Along with escalating demand for meat and dairy products by more affluent populations particularly in Asia, this booming demand for formula milk is forcing the global community to ask some hard questions about how to share the costs of climate change, across countries, within countries and between the current and future generations. Decisions on climate change are politically difficult because the solutions may imply lower  standards of living and health, which in practice are often inflicted on the poorest and weakest in society. The answers to the problem of climate change are not simple, but at least in 2015 our leaders began asking some of the right questions. It is no longer, who profits versus who loses from the status quo but rather, can humanity afford to continue with the status quo?

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However, in the case of infant and young child feeding, those asking the right questions are yet to be heard by the global community. To question the scale and activities of the highly profitable baby food industry is still economic heresy, especially in major food exporting countries such as Australia or New Zealand. Meanwhile the highly sustainable and efficient food system provided by lactating women for children is ignored, devalued and dishonoured by national and global leaders.

Ironically, even as climate change contributes to extreme weather events and greenhouse gas from the milk formula industry contributes to climate change, mothers and their young children face heightened risks of insecurity and starvation due to changing weather patterns and related floods, droughts, fires, storms and other crises. The most vulnerable to the food insecurity, ill health and disease arising from climate change are those also exposed to formula and bottle-feeding.

A recent report, published by International Baby Food Action Network and the Breastfeeding Protection Network of India, with support from the Swedish and Norwegian development assistance agencies, initiates an important conversation about the milk formula industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.6  The study provides important new data on how the present formula-feeding epidemic ‘costs the earth’. Not just the babies. Or the children. Or even the mothers. But what, instead, it costs humanity in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and dangerous climate change. The analysis of public policy in the six study countries also reveals that governments, who should be initiating effective action to protect, promote and support breastfeeding as part of optimal infant and young child feeding, remain in deep paralysis on this issue.

The study calculations showed that the GHG emission for a kilogram of milk formula (including standard infant formula, follow-on formula and toddler milk), was around 4kg (CO2 equivalent). This excluded emissions after the manufacturing stage, such as those arising due to packaging, transport, preparation and refrigeration of milk formula products. On this basis, milk formula sales totalling 720,450 tonnes (CO2 equivalent) in 2012 for just six countries in our region,1 generated GHG emissions of around 2.89 million tonnes. This is equivalent to 6888 million miles driven in the average US passenger car, around 1 million tons of waste sent to landfill, 323 million gallons of gasoline consumed and 3107 million pounds of coal burned.

The largest product contribution to these GHG emissions was toddler formula, which contributed 1.27 million tonnes of GHG (CO2 equivalent) in these six countries, while sales of standard infant formula and follow on formula contributed just under a million tonnes each to GHG emissions. Toddler milk is a product viewed by health authorities as both unnecessary and possibly harmful to child health,7, 8, yet is underpinning rising sales of milk formula sales in both industrialised countries like Australia and emerging countries such as China. The greatest generation of GHG emissions from milk formula is in China, which has a large population of infants and young children and dramatically declining breastfeeding rates. In China, GHG emissions were 2.2 million tonnes (CO2 equivalent) in 2012 and are forecast in the report to rise to 4.2 million tonnes by 2017. Australia, which is a major exporter of milk formula to China, generated around 32 thousand tonnes of GHG (CO2 equivalent) from its own use of these products.

This is a path-breaking report and is freely available online for concerned global citizens. Concerns since the 1990s about the environmental impacts of the formula milk industry have now been translated into detailed data and analysis using contemporary scientific methods.

There are difficult decisions ahead for governments in both formula exporting and importing countries, but by truly supporting women to breastfeed, improving Infant and Young Child Feeding policy, there is a rare opportunity for nations to meaningfully address the greenhouse gas problem, whilst also benefitting, rather than worsening, human health and social equity. It is now 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.

Julie Smith is an ARC Future Fellow, and Professor (Associate) at the Australian National University. She was an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health (ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment) from 2004.

Thank you to Julie Smith and to the Australian Breatsfeeding Association and Essence for permission to republish this important article.

References

  1. Baker, P., Smith, J., Salmon, L., Friel, S., Kent, G., Iellamo, A., … Renfrew, M. (2016). Global trends in commercial milk-based formula consumption: Is an unprecedented  infant and young child feeding transition underway? Public Health Nutrition. doi:10.1017/ S1368980016001117
  1. Rollins, N. C., Bhandari, N., Hajeebhoy, N., Horton, S., Lutter, C. K., Martines, J. C., … Victora, C. G. (2016). Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices? Lancet, 387, 491–504.
  2. Victora, C. G., Bahl, R., Barros, A. J., França, G. V. A., Horton, S., Krasevec, J., … Rollins, N. C. (2016). Breastfeeding in the 21st century: Epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. Lancet, 387, 475–490.
  3. Horta, B. L., Loret de Mola, C., Victora, C. G. (2015). Breastfeeding and intelligence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 104, 14–19.
  1. Chowdhury, R., Sinha, B., Sankar, M. J., Taneja, S., Bhandari, N., Rollins, N., … Martines, J. (2015). Breastfeeding and maternal health outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 104, 96–113.
  2. Dadhich, J., Smith, J., Iellemo, A., Suleiman, A. (2015). Report on carbon footprints due to milk formula: A study from select countries of Asia- Pacific region. New Delhi: BPNI/IBFAN Asia.
  3. World Health Organization. (2010). Infant and young child nutrition (WHA 63.23). Geneva: WHO.
  1. World Health Organization. (2013). Information concerning the use and marketing of follow- up formula. Geneva: WHO.

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