From Production to Use, Infant Formula Is Bad for the Environment

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Oct 16, 2019

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Breastfeeding for six months saves roughly 95 to 153 kg of carbon emissions per baby compared to formula feeding, according to fellows with the U.K. Research and Innovation Future Leaders program at Imperial College London, who have developed an analysis of the environmental impact of infant formula, from its production to use.

Their finding bolsters the case for improving breastfeeding support, they say.

“The production of unnecessary infant and toddler formulas exacerbates environmental damage and should be a matter of increasing global concern,” the experts argue in The BMJ.

Of course, not all infant and toddler formula is unnecessary; adoptive parents and parents who have had a child via surrogate may all require formula, especially in places like India, where breast milk banks are rare. Even mothers who have given birth to their children but have difficulty breastfeeding may need to use baby formula; however, the researchers argue, with improved breastfeeding support, the number of the latter would reduce considerably.


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In the U.K. alone, the fellows say, bolstering breastfeeding support would have planetary benefits equivalent to taking 50,000 to 77,500 cars off the road each year.

Baby formula is derived primarily from cow’s milk, and the meat and dairy industry accounts for 30% of global greenhouse gases, the analysis states. Powdered cow’s milk, the backbone of infant formula, also requires 4,700 liters of water to produce just 1 kilogram of powder.

But powdered cow’s milk is not nutritious enough on its own; therefore infant formula also comprises palm, coconut, rapeseed, and sunflower oils; fungal, algal, and fish oils; and minerals and vitamins. The production of each of these ingredients are all detrimental to the environment; palm oil production has been under fire particularly, in recent years, by environmentalists, as it’s known to damage habitats and contribute to deforestation.

The energy required for heating the formula also takes an environmental toll, reaching the equivalent of charging 200 million smartphones each year, the analysis concludes.

And finally, the waste of formula containers, which typically finds its way to landfills, creates an annual buildup fo 86,000 tons of metal and 364,000 tons of paper, according to a 2009 study cited in the analysis.

“We need to acknowledge that ‘our house is on fire’ and that the next generation requires us to act quickly to reduce carbon footprints in every sphere of life. Breastfeeding is a part of this jigsaw, and urgent investment is needed across the sector,” the fellows said in a statement.

India’s rate of exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months stands at only 55%, according to data from the Global Breastfeeding Collective, a group of 20 international organizations led by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. And initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth — a practice critical to a newborn’s health and survival — is even lower, at 42%; early initiation of breastfeeding is lowest among India’s wealthiest and poorest, according to a 2018 analysis by IndiaSpend. Practices like immediate formula ‘top feeds’ post-birth in hospitals, low awareness and support for breastfeeding difficulties from nursing and pediatric practitioners, and widespread misconceptions about milk supply among the public are potential reasons for low breastfeeding rates in India that, if addressed, could curb the use of infant formula and its negative effects on the environment.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

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