Assessing the environmental impact of powdered baby formula sold in North America

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

My new favorite pastime is listening to this podcast about the climate crisis. Among the many things I appreciate about the show are the calls to action offered at the end of each episode. The hosts put together a digestible list of resources and doable actions that individuals can employ toward the broader goal of saving our planet, which in my case, otherwise feels like an insurmountable task.

Although not directly answering to the podcast’s calls to action, (this publication has been years in the making) authors of Powdered Baby Formula Sold in North America: Assessing the Environmental Impact are pushing forward systemic changes to our energy and food sectors by measuring the environmental impact of infant and toddler formulas sold in North America. 

“One of the things I’ve recognized for a long time is that we measure what we value,” co-author Dr. Cadwell begins. “When we were doing this project, we were trying to look at things in different directions, look at it with different lenses and different ways of imaging the numbers.”

Numbers through various lenses 

Photo by Aaron Katz on Unsplash

When analyzing data for their research, the authors computed that seventeen million tree seedlings grown for ten years would need to be planted in order to offset the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by powdered infant formula production and consumption in the United States each year. That’s equivalent to 778 acres of US forests. If, like me, you’re not mathematically inclined, these numbers are unfathomable. 

Through another lens, one might note that the U.S. government purchases 51 percent of all infant formula sold in the country, or one might look at the percentage of babies who receive formula in our country. 

More specifically, Dr. Cadwell points out findings from Powdered Baby Formula Sold in North America: Assessing the Environmental Impact. As noted in the Per Capita Analysis of Carbon Emissions (Table 5), Canada, Mexico and the U.S. share relatively close figures. Interestingly though, Canada’s total comes in higher than the North American total. 

“We can look at the sale in tons or look at the sale per capita and it’s going to give us a totally different idea of the usage,” Dr. Cadwell offers. 

No matter the perspective, the authors’ findings should be considered when developing and funding Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) policies and supportive programs in order to contribute to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goal of decreasing GHG emissions by around 45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero in 2050.  

As Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson points out in How to Save a Planet,  “Policy matters. You have to change the rules to keep up with the ecosystem.”

Dr. Cadwell and colleagues write that “Biofuels, solar, and wind energy are obvious choices for reduction of the 75% of emissions from the energy sector (including transportation), but making reductions in the remaining 25%, the food sector, is more of a challenge.” 

They continue that one solution is to change our diets to increase low-carbon food alternatives, like breastmilk feeding and breastfeeding for infants and young children. 

Mixed consumption 

Considered their foundational work, Dr. Cadwell and colleagues looked to BPNI’s 2012 report of the carbon footprint of formula milk in Asian Pacific countries as they embarked on their research.

The team quickly realized that infant formula ingredients are regionally and country specific, and because farming and agricultural practices differ, they pulled industry data from Euromonitor International which included the retail sales amount and the percent composition of the major ingredients for each of the classes of powdered formula sold at retail in North America. Then they used emissions data from US farming practices.

It is worth noting that their findings represent minimums as they represent only the macro processes to the farm gate and do not include the manufacturing, packaging, transportation, etc. 

Researchers found that in 2016, the North America Greenhouse Gas emissions (in tons of CO2 eq.) attributable to sales of powdered formula was:

  • 70,256 in Canada 
  • 435,820 in Mexico 
  • and 655,956 in the United States. 

The North American per capita emissions based on infants and toddlers from birth to 36 months of age in 2016 was, at a minimum, 59.06 kg of CO2 eq., the authors note. 

For comparison, the BPNI report revealed that in India, the total sale of milk formula led to 111,226 tons about a decade ago whereas China produced 2,249,287 tons around that same time.

Dr. Cadwell shares that she was struck by the consumption piece revealed in their work. 

“In Mexico, it’s mostly the growing up formulas that are being consumed,” she begins. “What the numbers seem to indicate is that Mexican babies are getting breastmilk for the initial feeding and then being weaned on to the growing up formulas.”

In the U.S. and Canada, this isn’t the case. These countries’ greatest impact is attributed to powdered infant formula. 

Dr. Cadwell notes that “special powder” touts a much lower GHG emission compared to the growing up concoctions. That’s because special powders are largely soy-based formulas whereas the growing up formulas are generally dairy-based. This comparison demonstrates the difference between plant-based and animal-based consumption on the climate. 

“The problem is that babies should be on a human-based diet,” Dr. Cadwell comments.

She says the first thing we can do is recognize that unless there are very special circumstances, babies do not need to be weaned from infant formula or breastmilk onto growing up formulas.

“There’s new research about the incredible amount of sugars in these formulas,” Dr. Cadwell explains. “Growing up formulas are not good for the health of children or for the environment.”

Consumerism is powerful though, to paraphrase Dr. Cadwell. It’s the power of what happens to us when we’re walking down the supermarket aisles. 

“If it’s there, I must need it,” goes our inner dialogue. 

1,000 solutions 

“Respect your Mother” Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

While it’s true that we all must take responsibility for the climate crisis, the burden cannot fall entirely on individuals. Instead of being fooled by a deceptive marketing campaign, “the carbon footprint sham”, systems must evolve. 

“[Our hope] is that policy makers will see [our work] and include breastfeeding in the wider idea of decreasing emissions,” Dr. Cadwell says. “We’re talking about mechanisms, our U.S. burden…” 

I like to think that once humans have healthy infant feeding figured out, where supportive policies are implemented and breastfeeding is as normal as breathing , that everything else falls into place: a state of kumbaya, a healthy planet, world peace. 

But restorative ocean farmer Bren Smith has warned that this “Wall Street perspective” where we look for the unicorn, is what we’re doing wrong. 

Smith has said, “Let’s bundle 1,000 solutions together… and move forward that way.”   

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.