Breastfeeding should be recognised as a carbon offset: report

7 May 2024
Breastfeeding could be a valuable carbon offset, helping wean us off our economic dependence on commercial milk formula, which causes excessive greenhouse gas emissions.

A new report led by Australian experts, including from University of Sydney, says Government investments in breastfeeding should be considered a carbon offset in global plans for sustainable food, health and economic systems.

Currently, 21.9 billion litres of human milk are annually lost because governments fail to invest in supporting breastfeeding.

Meanwhile, commercial milk formula – generating a quarter of a tonne of greenhouse gas emissions to feed a baby for the first six months of life – is counted as boosting GDP growth, whereas the time and effort of breastfeeding women is not.

“Caring for and nourishing children, including breastfeeding, is highly gendered work that is often ignored and under-valued economically. So we’ve seen a huge lack of investment by governments in supporting women and families who wish to breastfeed,” said co-author Dr Phillip Baker, from the University of Sydney.

“Governments need to better recognise women’s contributions to sustainable food production, including breastmilk, in international and national food balance sheets.”

The researchers say the call to consider breastfeeding as a carbon offset is not aimed as women who choose not to breastfeed, or who need to use commercial milk formula but rather a call of action to governments.

By proposing to view breastfeeding as a carbon offset, we are encouraging governments to shift their way of thinking to reduce demand for food products with high greenhouse gas emissions, and make investments in sustainable food production.
Dr Phillip Baker

The report is part of a special issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO) and reinforces its calls for changes in how decisions on human and planetary health and well-being are made.

The report was led by Dr Julie Smith from Australian National University (ANU),  and a collaboration with Alive & Thrive at FHI 360 Global Nutrition,  the University of Sydney, Munster Technological University, Auckland University of Technology, and the World Health Organization, to launch a publication titled “A Proposal to Recognise Investment in Breastfeeding as a Carbon Offset.”

Associate Professor Smith, an expert who has advised on breastfeeding economics to the WHO and the US Surgeon General’s Office, said the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is a potential platform for recognising breastfeeding as a carbon offset.

“This shift should start with recognising breastfeeding as the highest-quality, local, and sustainable first-food system for generations to come, with financial resources going towards what really matters, that is, health for all.

“The CDM is the most important funding source for income redistribution between countries to address climate change.”

“Integrating breastfeeding into this key UN carbon offset scheme benefits the populations in developing countries most burdened by the harms of the commercial milk formula industry while acknowledging the value of women’s breastfeeding efforts for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

Recognising breastfeeding investments as a carbon offset in the CDM would impactfully redirect international financial resources away from expanding carbon-emitting activities, she said.

Alive & Thrive East Asia Pacific Director and co-author, Roger Mathisen, added: “Lack of support for breastfeeding increases disease prevalence in women and children, leading to higher healthcare costs and caregiver burdens. 

“Current economic metrics count these extra costs as economic growth while ignoring the multiple environmental harms linked with commercial milk formula production.”

Breastfeeding women nourish half the world’s infants and young children, yet, according to the experts, this productive and valuable work is rarely resourced in national budgets.

Under the CDM, lower-middle-income countries could be financed by high-income countries for investing in new policies that support high breastfeeding rates, thereby generating offsets to carbon emissions. This would include new funding for skilled birth attendance and maternity care, social protections such as paid maternity leave, breastfeeding-friendly environments, and suitable infrastructure investments, and ending formula marketing misinformation.

The research builds on earlier pioneering work led by several of the co-authors, including the development of the Mother’s Milk Tool, which helps estimate the economic value generated by breastmilk production.

“By proposing to view breastfeeding as a carbon offset, we are encouraging governments to shift their way of thinking to reduce demand for food products with high greenhouse gas emissions, and make investments in sustainable food production,” says Dr Baker.

“This shift applies especially to heavily marketed, follow-up formulas and ‘growing up’ milks promoted for ages six months and older, products that WHO considers unnecessary for healthy infant and young child diets, yet account for at least half of global commercial milk formula sales.”

The report is available on the Bulletin of The World Health Organization.

Declaration: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Image: AdobeStock

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