The health of our planet is affected by the way babies are fed. We know that breastfeeding has overwhelmingly positive impacts on both mother and child – with long-term health effects that last a lifetime. Yet, safeguarding women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding and providing necessary support for women is also of incredible importance for our environment and in tackling climate change.
To break it down, there are a few noticeable impacts that breastfeeding has on combating climate change – when put in contrast to the use of breastmilk substitutes:
- Reducing waste in your home from breastmilk substitutes
- Reducing methane gas from cows that produce milk to make formula
- Reducing industrial waste and pollution from production of breastmilk substitutes
- Reducing fuel consumed to transport products to market
- Reducing use of energy to heat formula and sterilize equipment
- And in the long term – reducing energy use and waste associated with ill health and deaths of children and mothers
Yet, aren’t these points just a necessary evil for women who are not able to breastfeed? For some, yes. David Clark of UNICEF puts it into perspective for us:
“Entire sections of society mistakenly believe that large numbers of women cannot breastfeed and that formula is a necessity, and that any harm caused to the environment is a necessary evil. The breastmilk substitute industry (estimated to be worth $41.5 billion in 2012 and forecasted to double in size and reach $63.6 billion in 2017) has played a significant role in idealizing the use of their products and persuading women that they are either as good as, or better than breastfeeding.”
Like in so many other areas of our lives – especially as women – we are bombarded by marketing telling us how to look, how to behave and what life-changing decisions to make. Breastfeeding is not excluded from this. The detrimental environmental impact of breastmilk substitutes is a responsibility for all of us to bear – not mothers alone. We need to provide enabling environments, supporting policies and changed attitudes that give women the freedom to choose to breastfeed, as part of our efforts to combat climate change.
The biggest task ahead is communicating the important linkages between breastfeeding and the environment – taking the conversation about breastfeeding beyond nutrition to the impact on sustainability and women’s rights, and putting it into practice.
An example of how this is being done is through the work of Pan Asia Pacific. Their work focuses on creating a just and pesticide-free future with strong partnerships at the grassroots level – including with agricultural workers, indigenous peoples and rural women’s movements. They acknowledge that poor women from poor communities are more susceptible to pesticides, which further puts their babies at risk during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They promote women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding – yet they do so with caution, as they know the implications of working in polluted environments.
Safeguarding breastfeeding is an essential step in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals – including the targets related to climate change and our environment – and requires us to collaborate across sectors and at multiple levels. One such partnership is the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI), which aims to raise awareness of the contribution breastfeeding can play in combatting climate change.
“Through the Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative, UNICEF is reaching out to partners beyond the world of infant and young child feeding and this must include allies in the field of environment and climate change,” Clark explains.
Let’s increase action by ensuring that groups working on environmental issues understand the linkages between breastfeeding and combatting climate change – making this a central part of our advocacy strategies. Advocacy must also include the normalization of breastfeeding as a sustainable way to feed babies – including the message that breastfeeding contributes to reducing our carbon footprint. New mothers and the younger generation need to be informed of the environmental impact of formula feeding in addition to receiving the support they need to choose to breastfeed.
To ensure that sustainability and environmental protection is a central part of breastfeeding advocacy we must broaden our messaging to include environmental and climate change arguments, like curbing the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers. To protect mothers and children that are the most vulnerable, we need to partner with grassroots organizations that work among poor and marginalized groups.
Lastly, the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes creates a framework for us to limit the formula feeding industry and thus safeguard our environment as well as women’s and children’s right to breastfeeding. Let’s ensure that The Code is fully implemented and monitored regularly.
World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy.