Breastfeeding seminars

Breastfeeding can be good for public health and the planet too

Opinion: Supporting mothers who want to breastfeed is good for public health and could also reduce emissions

By Kian Mintz Woo, UDC; Aifé Long, UDC and Dr. Maeve Anne O’Connell, Fatima College of Health Sciences

Breastfeeding is both a public health issue and an environmental justice issue. In public health terms, breastfeeding is associated with lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer and a lower risk of diabetes in mothers. Benefits for newborns include a reduced incidence of ear infection, fewer diarrheal infections and fewer respiratory infections.

Infant feeding is not purely a nutritional benefit: it also promotes bonding and attachment, brain development and mental health. Worldwide, approximately 800,000 deaths of children under the age of five are attributed to suboptimal breastfeeding. For these reasons, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize potential benefits and recommends breastfeeding for at least two years.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Today With Claire Byrne, a discussion with Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain of the Baby Feeding Law Group Ireland and the mothers’ representative on the National Maternity Hospital Infant Feeding Steering Committee

But breastfeeding can be difficult and many mothers stop earlier than they want. Despite initiatives like the WHO International Code of Marketingwhich aim to protect mothers from the commercial interests of infant formula manufacturers, the aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes permeates daily life and compromises breastfeeding. Providing unbiased scientific support for infant feeding can ensure high standards of care and the best chance for an infant to thrive, regardless of feeding type. When education and professional support are available to women, they can achieve their infant feeding goals and babies can thrive.

An unexpected benefit of breastfeeding is the reduction in emissions compared to the production of breastmilk substitutes. Most of the emissions related to the production of infant formula come from dairy farming for the manufacture of milk, but almost 15% come from the production process which currently uses a lot of fossil fuels.

Formula manufacturers strive to reduce the carbon footprint of their products. One way to do this is to use biomethane replacing fossil natural gas in their processes. Biomethane is made from a process called anaerobic digestion, where bacteria in a giant industrial stomach break down organic matter such as grass or manure. If the carbon footprint of infant formula is reduced, we can expect this to become a selling point and make infant formula more socially acceptable.

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Ray D’Arcy Show, a discussion of the ups and downs of breastfeeding with Siobhan O’Connor, Grace Mongey and Jen Hogan

There is a potential downside to using biomethane and our research reflected on the ethics of this fuel substitution for fossil gas. We applied the ethical principle of “do no harm” to the social justice issue of breastfeeding. This principle has its roots in medical ethics and asks that we first consider the potential harm caused by our actions.

The first concern is that the current supply of infant formula is greater than the demand, and this demand is fueled by aggressive business practices. Examples of such aggressive marketing practices are free samples in hospitals, cross-marketing of infant formula and toddler milks, and online baby clubs, which claim to be neutral while ensuring that recognition of the mark remains high. Although these may seem benign individually, they create an environment and culture that undermines breastfeeding. If we reduce the carbon footprint of infant formula production, it allows those companies to market themselves or market themselves as green or sustainable.

The second concern is that using available biomethane in the production of formulas means that we are not using it for other purposes. Biomethane has the advantage to be similar to fossil fuels, so it could also be used as a carbon-free transportation fuel.

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From RTÉ Archives, George Devlin reports for RTÉ News on the La Leche League conference on breastfeeding in 1986

We Argue that hard-to-decarbonise processes, such as transportation, are a much better use of these low-carbon energy sources, as they will require powerful and portable alternative energy sources. Heavy transport has been particularly difficult to decarbonise, as current battery technology for electric vehicles is insufficient for long-distance transport. Biomethane is made from energy crops, which will not be available in the same quantities as oil and gas reserves, so it is important to use it in a way that it can have the greatest impact.

How would switching fuel compare to better breastfeeding support? The WHO has set a global nutritional target of a minimum breastfeeding rate of 50% at 6 months by 2025. In Ireland, the current rate of exclusive breastfeeding at two weeks is around 32%, and the rate decreases from here. Using biomethane to reduce the carbon footprint of using formulas in Ireland would save 900 tonnes of CO2,

There are multiple complex factors that influence the individual food choices of infants.

Conversely, if we reach the minimum target of 50%, we could save nearly 5,000 tonnes of CO2, or five times the emissions savings. Reaching the minimum target and decarbonizing the remaining production with biomethane will save around 5,500 tonnes of CO2.

Emissions aren’t the only important thing and we don’t suggest parents breastfeed as a way to reduce emissions. There are multiple complex factors that influence the individual food choices of infants. By examining the interplay between public health and environmental concerns, we suggest that when the formula for decarbonization with biomethane is on the table, access to social and professional breastfeeding support is a climate justice imperative.

Dr. Kian Mintz-Woo is a lecturer at the Department of Philosophy and a subsidiary of Environmental Research Institute at UDC. He is a visiting scholar with the Equity and Justice Group of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Aifé Long is responsible for cyber skills education and public engagement in MTU and a PhD student studying renewable gas policy at Environmental Research Institute and MaREI Center for Energy, Climate and the Sea at UDC. Dr. Maeve Anne O’Connell is assistant professor of midwifery at School of nursing, Fatima College of Health SciencesUnited Arab Emirates, and member of the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery at Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI).


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ