Climate change: have you tried squirting breastmilk on it?


Climate change is the greatest existential threat we face.

Lactivists are meeting it in the same way they meet every other situation. They recommend putting breastmilk on it.

That’s the premise behind the ludicrous editorial in the BMJ Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative by Prof. Natalie Shenker.

Shenker declares:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]How green is a breast pump?[/pullquote]

Formula milk contributes to environmental degradation and climate change

Conversations around the complex subject of infant feeding have invariably focused on health outcomes, but recent studies have highlighted the environmental cost of decades of disinvestment in services to support breastfeeding. Breastfeeding uses few resources and produces minimal or zero waste. The associated infant and maternal health outcomes produce healthier populations that use fewer healthcare resources.34 The production of unnecessary infant and toddler formulas exacerbates environmental damage and should be a matter of increasing global concern.

I wrote about Prof. Shenker just a few months ago.

A physician had asked other physicians on Twitter:

Drs of Twitter! If your child had developed a mild superficial fungal infection over the weekend, would you buy some Canesten 1% (available from a pharmacist without prescription) or would you feel you needed to take your child to a walk-in centre for a formal diagnosis & script?

Shenker replied with this tweet:


Hey, hope the little one is ok. Have you tried putting breastmilk on? Contains fungicide components (probably for just this sort of thing)

Now she’s suggesting treating the entire planet with breastmilk.

As Dr. Steve Novella has written on Science Based Medicine:

One common feature of pseudoscience is that proponents of a specific belief tend to exaggerate its scope and implications over time…

Dr. Shenker’s editorial is a classic example of how breastfeeding promotion has veered into pseudoscience.

Lactivists are losing ground and they know it.

Several decades after predicting that increased breastfeeding rates would lead to decreased infant mortality, severe morbidity and healthcare spending, it has become clear that it leads to none of those things. That’s hardly surprising since there was never any correlation (let alone causation) between breastfeeding rates and infant mortality. For example, the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rate in the world AND one of the lowest infant mortality rates.

To the extent that increased breastfeeding rates in term babies have caused ANY measurable change, it is only to make things WORSE. Exclusive breastfeeding is now the leading risk factor for newborn re-hospitalization in the US, leading to TENS OF THOUSANDS of readmissions per year at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

But lactation professionals have built entire medical and academic careers on promoting breastfeeding. Therefore, as it has become clear that substantive benefits of breastfeeding don’t exist, they’ve been hawking ever more nebulous “benefits” in areas like the microbiome and epigenetics.

The recommendation to squirt breastmilk on climate change was inevitable.

Prof. Shenker presents her case the same way that lactation professionals always present their case: looking only at benefits, ignoring both costs and risks.

According Shenker:

The food industry, particularly dairy and meat production, contributes around 30% of global greenhouse gases. Most formulas are based on powdered cows’ milk. The average water footprint of whole cows’ milk is around 940 L/kg: one kilogram of milk gives about 200 g of milk powder, meaning the water footprint of milk powder alone is roughly 4700 L/kg.

That sounds impressive until you consider that breastmilk supplies the same calories per ounce as formula and those calories have to come from from the food consumed by the mother. In contrast to cows who need only consume grass to make milk, women need meat (produced by industrial farming), vegetables and fruit (produced by industrial agriculture) and fish (caught by practices that are destroying the oceans).

Dr. Shenker fails to even consider the environmental impact of those factors.

She writes:

A 2009 study showed that 550 million infant formula cans, comprising 86 000 tons of metal and 364 000 tons of paper are added to landfills every year; the formula industry has more than doubled since then.

But how green is the plastic used in breast pumps? How green is the electricity and batteries used to power them? How green are nursing bras made with synthetic fibers? How green are special clothing, breastfeeding pillows and other breastfeeding accessories. Dr. Shenker doesn’t know because she never looked.

Then she adds a truly bizarre coda:

The amount spent on marketing infant formula worldwide has been estimated at over £5bn (€5.6bn; $6bn) a year—£36 for every child born. Costs to the environment include paper use, postage, plastic waste, and transport costs at multiple stages in the production, marketing, and sale of breastmilk substitutes.

Marketing? How does the environmental impact of marketing formula differ from the environmental impact of marketing breastfeeding? Oh, right, it doesn’t; yet Prof. Shenker does not suggest we stop marketing breastfeeding.

Indeed Prof. Shenker deliberately leaves out a lot of things.

Here’s just one: What is the environmental impact of tens of thousands of newborn re-hospitalizations each year: the cost of neonatal incubators (made in large part of plastic), IV tubing, blood drawing needles, etc. etc, etc?

There may be an environmental case for promoting breastfeeding, but by refusing to consider the environmental impact of breastfeeding itself and the increased risk of hospitalization, Prof. Shenker hasn’t made it.

If that weren’t bad enough, she shifts responsibility for addressing climate change from corporations who have caused it to individual mothers:

This is a societal responsibility to which we can all contribute. A multitargeted approach is required, including investment in medical education so doctors can support and signpost mothers if difficulties arise, improved antenatal information and care enabling parents to develop feeding plans alongside birth plans, better access to screened donor milk from a regulated milk bank when supplementation is needed, and increased numbers of certified lactation consultants. Cultural change is long overdue to remove the myriad obstacles to breastfeeding faced by new mothers.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, climate change is largely driven by CO2 production from the burning of fossil fuels. The contribution of the formula industry, if it even makes a contribution, is trivial.

No matter. Prof. Shenker isn’t trying to reduce climate change, she’s trying to promote breastfeeding and — like those who promote pseudoscience — exaggerating the scope of its effects and its implications in order to do so.