Imperial College London

Environmental cost of formula milk needs global attention, argue scientists

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A baby drinking a bottle

Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative, argue experts from Imperial College London.

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

Dr Natalie Shenker, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at Imperial College London, and colleagues highlight research showing breastfeeding for six months saves an estimated 95-153 kg CO2 equivalent per baby compared with formula feeding.

For the UK alone, carbon emission savings gained by supporting mothers to breastfeed would equate to taking between 50,000 and 77,500 cars off the road each year, they write.

They call for urgent action by government to support breastfeeding as part of a global commitment to reduce carbon footprints in every sphere of life.

Dr Shenker, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial, explained: "The data in this piece is stark and raises a new aspect of public health - supporting breastfeeding is just one of a series of changes that our society needs to make to reduce our society's carbon footprint. It is clear that government needs to look again at the package of support measures available to new mothers to support them in the hours and days after birth. This critical period has suffered from decades of under-funding and years of new cuts."

Dr Shenker added: "My own work in the last 3 years has focused on co founding the Hearts Milk Bank - the first independent milk bank in the country, and part of the Human Milk Foundation.We are aware milk banking carries its own carbon footprint, and through working with other departments at Imperial College over the next year, our team is working to become the first carbon neutral milk bank in the world."

Energy equivalent for milk production

The food industry, particularly dairy and meat production, contributes around 30 per cent of global greenhouse gases, the scientists explain. Most formulas are based on powdered cows’ milk. Methane from livestock is a powerful and significant greenhouse gas and cow milk has a water footprint of up to 4,700 litres per kilogram of powder.

Powdered infant formula can be made safely only with water that has been heated to at least 70°C, giving an energy use equivalent to charging 200 million smartphones each year.

And half of the associated greenhouse gases of formula production come from follow-on formulas, which are unnecessary and potentially harmful according to regulators. 

In terms of waste, a 2009 study also 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 authors argue breastfeeding for six months saves an estimated 95-153 kg CO2 equivalent per baby compared with formula feeding
The authors argue breastfeeding for six months saves an estimated 95-153 kg CO2 equivalent per baby compared with formula feeding

And 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. The production of these additives has an undeniable effect on the environment, the researchers argue.

Plastic waste 

The authors list other costs to the environment including paper use, plastic waste, and transportation at multiple stages in the production, marketing, and sale of breastmilk substitutes. The environmental impact of many aspects of formula production, such as transport, are not documented.

In contrast, breastfeeding uses few resources and produces minimal or zero waste, they write, and the associated infant and maternal health outcomes produce healthier populations that use fewer healthcare resources. The environmental cost of increased illness remains under investigated.

Yet they point out that globally, only 41% of the 141 million babies born annually are exclusively breastfed until 6 months. The UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and one of the highest uses of formula per capita, despite more than 85% of pregnant women wanting to breastfeed.

This is a societal responsibility to which we can all contribute, argue Shenker and colleagues. 

They say a multi-targeted approach is needed, including improved support for mothers, better access to screened donor milk from a regulated milk bank when supplementation is needed, which can support breastfeeding, and increased numbers of specialist lactation consultants across the country.

Improving breast feeding rates

Cultural change is also long overdue to remove the myriad obstacles to breastfeeding faced by new mothers, they add.

“The UK government recently opened a public consultation to help improve breastfeeding rates, which offers an opportunity for all of us to act,” they write.

“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,” they conclude.

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'Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative' is published in the BMJ

This article was adapted from a BMJ press release

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Kate Wighton

Kate Wighton
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Email: k.wighton@imperial.ac.uk

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