Breastfeeding has less impact on the environment than artificial formula, not to mention fewer health risks for mother and child.
Production of artificial formula from cow’s milk
The majority of artificial formulae are based on cows’ milk. The dairy industry is a major user of resources such as water, energy, feed (including grain) and land and a producer of pollutants that contribute to environmental damage.
Dairy cattle produce methane as a by-product of the fermentation of their manure. A typical cow burps 280 litres of methane each day – the result of microbial digestion of fodder in its stomach (1). Methane and other fermentation by-products are powerful greenhouse gases. Methane has 23 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide (2).
The processing involved in the conversion of milk to powdered formula requires the use of water, energy and resources, while generating waste and pollutants.
Sale of artificial formula
Infant formula packaging across its production stages uses paper, cardboard, aluminium, plastic, steel and tin, which in turn, require energy to produce.
Artificial formula is a heavily traded product worldwide and thus contributes to food miles. Much of Australia’s domestic consumption is imported from New Zealand, France, Ireland and Germany, while Australia produces 13,000 tonnes of artificial formulae for export (3). Additionally, raw ingredients may be exported for production of artificial formula off-shore.
Consumption of artificial formula
Powdered artificial formulae must be reconstituted prior to consumption, and this process involves energy associated with boiling and cooling water, as well as washing and sterilising bottles.
There is also energy associated with the manufacture of baby bottles and teats and the impacts of their disposal should be considered.
Health impacts of artificial formula
Artificial feeding results in higher rates of medical treatment of infants, including hospitalisation. Based on data generated in the Australian Capital Territory, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life could save between $60–120 million in Australian hospital costs for treatments of infants suffering illnesses that are associated with early weaning (4).
Environmental impacts of breastfeeding
There are some positive and negative environmental impacts associated with breastfeeding:
Environmental costs are associated with the increased food intake of breastfeeding women during lactation. According to the Nutrient Reference Values for Australian and New Zealand (5), there is an increased requirement for water, energy and most vitamins and minerals during lactation, above the mother’s usual requirements.
Data regarding the proportion of breastfeeding mothers who express breastmilk is not available, although some evidence suggests that this is becoming more common (6). Activities associated with expressing breastmilk that may have an environmental impact include operation of an electric breast pump (if used), refrigeration/freezing of expressed breast milk, warming of stored breast milk, manufacture, disposal, washing and sterilising of baby bottles and the necessary equipment, and its eventual disposal.
An environmental benefit of breastfeeding is that it prevents more births worldwide than all other forms of contraception put together and consequently decreases consumption of feminine hygiene products used during menstruation (7).
In conclusion, although breastfeeding does have environmental impacts, use of artificial formula is by far the worse choice in environmental terms. Attention should also be paid to the significant additional health costs related to the use of artificial formula and the subsequent environmental costs associated with hospital treatment.