While the health benefits of breastfeeding are relatively well known, for those who are able to breastfeed, the fact there can be significant environmental benefits is not.
Before delving into these advantages, it is crucial to note that some mothers and babies are unable to (or do not) breastfeed for health reasons or personal choice. Nobody should ever be pressured into doing so. And it’s important to understand the issue can be emotionally painful for those who wish to, but cannot.
There are many barriers to breastfeeding, too: such as unsupportive employers – the MP Stella Creasy was recently banned from parliament for breastfeeding in the chamber, for example.
According to Unicef, other barriers include a lack of support services in the community, and misinformation. It reports that the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with eight out of 10 women stopping before they want to (although it does say that the situation is improving).
While formula milk is a perfectly viable option for all of the reasons explained above, the impact that it has on the planet is often overlooked. There are significant environmental benefits from cutting consumption of high-carbon formula milk, since producing a kilogram of replacement milk formula involves the emission of about 4kg of CO2. Other environmental benefits are listed below:
- If every one of the 615,000 babies born in the UK each year were breastfed for their first year, it would avoid about 82,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year
- This equates to the electricity carbon emissions from about 109,000 homes per year
- It would demolish an enormous mountain of 32 million tins, on the basis of a tin per baby, per week, for the year (0.8kg CO2 per tin x 52 weeks x 615,000 babies born in 2021)
- It would save families 56 million kwh of electricity by not having to boil half a billion litres of hot water a year, to heat formula milk (0.5 litres of water, five times a day boiled in 2kw kettle for 90 seconds)
- Staggeringly, it would save approximately 120 billion litres of water to produce the formula milk, as it takes about 4700 litres to produce one kg of formula powder.
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For these reasons, formula milk could be considered environmentally problematic – and the industry as a whole has also come under fire for its “aggressive” marketing tactics. Last week, the WHO and Unicef released a major report into how the $55 billion baby formula food industry is ruthlessly targeting pregnant women and young mothers, not only in the UK but around the world.
The report said the formula milk industry is pushing misleading advertising, via a myriad of platforms, to systematically undermine parents’ breast-feeding decisions. It also cites the significant health benefits of breastfeeding for women and children.
The executive director of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “Formula milk marketing – powered by enormous budgets and deliberate misuse of science – is driving over-consumption of formula milk and discouraging breastfeeding.”
“It undermines women’s confidence and cynically exploits parents’ instincts to do the best for their children,” Ghebreyesus added.
As misinformation is cited by Unicef as one of the barriers to breastfeeding for women, it is vital that the government tackles aggressive formula milk-advertising and supports parents in being responsibly informed.