Q&A: Breast-feeding can combat climate change

A Somali mother receive breastfeeding technique lesson. Photo by: J. Ose / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

Combating the impact of climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the global development community. But one nutrition expert at UNICEF has suggested a major and sustainable contribution could come from an unexpected source: promoting breast-feeding.  

Identified as a key component of actualizing the Sustainable Development Goals, not only has breast-feeding reduced mortality and morbidity of newborns and infants, it is also able to address climate change, because producing it does not contribute to the depletion of natural resources, David Clark, a nutrition specialist at UNICEF, told Devex.

Breast-feeding cuts out numerous processes that contribute to global warming, whether that is by bypassing the activities of the global dairy industry — and its large transport networks — or avoiding the industrial processes that produce infant formula or prepare it for use at home, such as heating water and sterilizing bottles.

However, the production of infant formula remains a powerful and growing industry across the world. It was estimated to be worth $41.5 billion in 2012 and is forecasted to double in size and reach $63.6 billion in 2017. It is also an industry backed by marketing and advertising campaigns aimed at convincing mothers to opt for formula over breast-feeding. “The manufacturers spend a lot of money in promoting this product to get women to stop breast-feeding and use these products,” said Clark.

Clark explained how government leaders are taking action to curb the use of baby formulas and the potential that promoting breast-feeding has in improving the environment and fighting climate change.

How do you work with UNICEF to crack down on the increase in production of baby formula?

I am the legal adviser with the nutrition section. This post was created 20 years ago to help protect, promote, and support breast-feeding principally through the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

It was adopted by the World Health Assembly and calls on governments to implement national legislation to give effect to it and in doing this, it aims to stop the unethical promotion, advertising of breast milk substitute, you know, baby milk, formulas.

Unbiased information on the benefits of breast-feeding, the risks to the health of the baby and the mother when you don’t breast-feed are all made available to the mothers so that they can make an informed choice about how they are going to feed their babies.  

What are the barriers hindering the implementation of legislation on this issue?

Sometimes it is just a lack of awareness on the part of the government and policymakers that this is an important issue. They think that breast-feeding is fine in their country or don’t appreciate the life-saving intervention that breast-feeding is. They don’t understand the impact it has on reducing, not just mortality but morbidity, particularly in things like respiratory infection and diarrhea (both big killers of infants and young children). Breast-feeding has an enormous protective effect on that, which translates into significant savings for the health care systems in these countries. I think that they are often unaware of that and therefore it doesn’t get the priority with the policymakers that it deserves. Another issue is the power — the economic and political power — of the multinational breast milk substitute companies that lobby and do all sorts of things to try and prevent strong legislations getting into place. Sometimes even when we manage to get that legislation in place, they challenge it and try to get it undone and weakened.

Recently, there has been talk about breast-feeding being able to tackle climate change?

I think there is no doubt about that. People have started looking at this more closely. The International Baby Food Action Network put out a report within the last year or so on this … there is this whole issue of the cost in terms of carbon footprint of producing these products. That goes from the cows that are raised in order to get the milk to produce the formula, then you have the impact on the environment by the industrial process by which they are manufactured, then you have the transportation cost of the distribution systems to get them to market. Then you have the fact that whosoever is going to use them is going to use fuel to boil the water, sterilize the instruments to prepare the food. And then, of course, you are left with the waste from the cans, boxes, feeding bottles, etc … There is no doubt about it that breast-feeding — which comes ready-made, readily produced, doesn’t need heating up, doesn’t need fuel — is a huge saving in terms of carbon footprint.

What efforts are being made to make this common knowledge?

I think the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action is focused on this particular issue. What we have to do is get some other groups that are really interested in the environment to take on our cause. We are looking to improve the situation, maybe some of these environment group could be made more aware that this is an issue that they can also help promote as part of their campaigns for the protection of the environment.

How has your work to promote the ICBMS been received by the different countries where you work?

We have quite a lot of countries that have adopted the code into legislation. In fact, we just did a review this year with World Health Organization and the International Baby Food Action Network. We published a report in May this year on the status of code implementation among countries, and we found out there is an increase in the number of countries that have legal provisions in place. It has gone up from 103 in 2011 to 135 in 2016. Now not all of them have what we would deem the best legislation in place. Some of them only have a few provision of the law, but we have about 39 countries of what we would consider good legislation in place. Unfortunately, when it comes to the monitoring and enforcement — that is still lacking in many countries, so that is something we are trying to [improve]. If you have the code in place, then it stops promotional practices that we know have an impact on breast-feeding behavior. We have evidence from studies that shows that the more a woman is exposed to an advertisement or the more she receives free samples, then the less she is going to breast-feed both in terms of the duration of her breast-feeding and the exclusivity of her breast-feeding. We hope that through better code implementation regarding the adoption of good strong legislation and having monitoring and enforcement provisions with adequate sanctions against companies that violate the code; then it really would give breast-feeding a much better chance.

In some societies, women are very vocal about the need for them to have control of their own bodies. What would you say is the best way of engaging women to ensure that this is not perceived as another burden?

I think we have to be very careful because this is not something where we are saying to women: “You must breast-feed.” That is her decision. What we want is to create an environment in which she is protected from the manipulation by the promotional propaganda of the formula company into believing that she is doing the right thing for her baby by using their products. We know that that is not true. What we want is to have an environment in which women receive the proper information so they know the benefits and risks of each feeding whether they are going to choose to breast-feed or to feed artificially. So that she can make a decision on the basis of unbiased scientific information, and not the claims that these companies are making. We also want to make sure that if she makes that choice to breast-feed that she is in an environment that makes that possible in terms of adequate maternity leave, maternity protection in the workplace and is be able to breast-feed where and when she wants without the risk of being scorned or shouted at. It is a win-win for the mother, baby, society, and also for the environment. It is something that benefits everybody.

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About the author

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    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.