Could breastfeeding be the new carbon offset?
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > Could breastfeeding be the next carbon offset? New research report says yes

Could breastfeeding be the next carbon offset? New research report says yes

by Freya Lucas

May 09, 2024

Breastfeeding could be a valuable carbon offset and help us wean off our economic dependence on commercial milk formula which causes excessive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, a new research report has shown. 


To boost breastfeeding rates, mothers need more support, researchers argue, which includes making early childhood education and care (ECEC) more accessible, and workforces more inclusive. 


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.


Government investments in breastfeeding should be considered a carbon offset in global plans for sustainable food, health and economic systems, researchers argue, noting that currently (at a global level) 21.7 billion litres of human milk are lost annually 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,” co-author Dr Phillip Baker said. 


“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 at women who choose not to breastfeed, or who need to use commercial milk formula, but is rather a call of action to governments.


By proposing to view breastfeeding as a carbon offset, researchers hope to encourage 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.


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.


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,” she said.


“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.”


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.


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

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