Making mothers’ milk count

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In her 1988 classic Counting for Nothing, Marilyn Waring wrote that although ‘men who win Nobel prizes are generally considered more observant than the rest of us’, Sir Richard Stone had invented a system of measuring economic activity in which ‘reproduction is invisible’! Waring highlighted the economics of breastfeeding. Despite its crucial importance for infant health and survival, national statisticians did not count human milk as a food. Declining breastfeeding partly reflected a worldwide lack of consideration by employers. Women who breastfed were simply expected to get on with it, in their own time. The UN System of National Accounts (SNA) perpetuates this devaluation of breastfeeding women’s large contribution as infant food and health care producers. In a 2009 review of GDP measurement for the French President, Nobel Laureate economists Stiglitz and Sen used breastmilk to emphasise the importance of accounting for home production. “There is a serious omission in the valuation of home-produced goods – the value of breast milk,” they reported. “This is clearly within the System of National Accounts production boundary, is quantitatively non-trivial and also has important implications for public policy and child and maternal health.” This paper considers how Waring’s feminist critique of the national accounts system influenced research on the economic value of breastfeeding since 1988. It also shows how Counting for Nothing inspired women’s national and international breastfeeding advocacy, and helped shape employment policies to better acknowledge women’s contributions. The paper concludes by exploring barriers to valuing breastfeeding in the UN SNA, and the important implications of doing so.
Making Mothers’ Milk Count
Julie P. Smith
In her 1988 classic Counting for Nothing, Marilyn Waring observed
that although “men who win Nobel prizes are generally considered
more observant than the rest of us”, Sir Richard Stone had invented
a system of measuring economic activity in which “reproduction is
invisible” (Waring, 181).
The example of breastfeeding was used to scathingly critique
the United Nations System of National Accounts (SNA) - Sir Richard
Stone’s “baby”. Waring argued forcefully that these accounts per-
petuated the invisibility and devaluation of women’s contribution
as infant food and health care producers. Breasts were only counted
by the SNA when exploited in advertising, in pornography, in the
lingerie industry, and cosmetic surgery.
Breastfeeding was not counted when applied to their primary
function —nourishing human infants. Meanwhile, breastfeeding
was declining worldwide, due partly to a worldwide lack of consid-
eration by employers — women who breastfed in accordance with
best practice for mother and child health were “simply expected to
get on with it, in their own time” (Waring, 171).
This vigorous feminist critique of the SNA inspired consider-
able feminist scholarship and activism on valuing women’s work
in economic statistics, and was an important contribution to the
“accounting for women’s work project” (Benaria 131). This aimed
for all women’s work to be counted in statistics, accounted for in
the representations of how economies work, and taken into account
when policy is made (Elson Progress of the World’s Women 2000).
It is also important for economic advancement that public pol-
icy is informed by statistics which more accurately portray the
economy and women’s contribution to it. Nevertheless, some ask
whether this accounting focus distracted from achieving greater
economic justice for women. As Valeria Esquival observes, “pro-
ducing household sector satellite accounts does not by itself change
macroeconomic policy” (219). More recently, UN discourse has
shifted in focus from “measuring” and “possibly compensating” un-
paid work, to counting as “essential to well-being” but “costly” for
those who provide it, and justifying claims for strategic policy inter-
ventions to reduce unpaid work and redistribute its burden within
and between households. This is known as the “three R’s of unpaid
work: recognition, reduction and redistribution” (Elson The Three
R’s of Unpaid Work ).
This chapter reviews the intellectual contributions stemming
from Counting for Nothing in the area of women’s breastfeeding
work, and illustrates from an Australian perspective how this has
been used in public policy advocacy. I explore how the feminist
critique of the national accounts system influenced research on the
economic value of breastfeeding since 1988, how it inspired women’s
breastfeeding advocacy and helped shape Australian health and
employment policy. I also consider the barriers and possibilities for
valuing breastfeeding in the SNA, and the important implications
of doing so.
Counting for Nothing was not the first call to acknowledge the
economic value of mother’s milk and breastfeeding, though it was
the first to demand its proper valuation and to insist that the costs
of breastfeeding to women be accounted for.
Until the 1990s, assessments of the economic significance of
breastfeeding valued breast milk as if it were cows’ milk or commer-
cial infant formula. This fails to count the economic value of breast-
feeding for the health and development of infants. These studies
were motivated to protect and promote breastfeeding but under-
stated its economic value by equating human milk with bovine
animal milk products (Berg; Almroth, Greiner and Latham). Im-
portantly, these studies viewed women’s time as “free”, thus under-
stating the economic cost of breastfeeding. In 1979, nutritionists
noted the time spent breastfeeding as a cost (Almroth, Greiner
and Latham). Such costs are especially important for resource
poor mothers and may influence them to wean their children from
breastfeeding prematurely (Sellen).
The “mothers’ milk equals cows’ milk” approach to valuing
breastfeeding was challenged from the 1990s. Mother’s milk pro-
duction was counted in Norway’s food production statistics from
the early 1990s, and was valued in a 1994 study using the market
price of donated breast milk traded between Norwegian hospitals
(Oshaug and Botten). Using the same valuation approach, the
economic value and strategic importance of breastfeeding in Sub-
Saharan Africa was estimated at half the annual output of cows’
milk (Hatloy and Oshaug). Conservatively valued at US$1 per
litre, this added between two and five percent to GNP.
In the mid 1990s, Oshaug and Botten’s insights on valuation
were used to estimate the economic value of breastfeeding in Aus-
tralia, within a national accounting framework. This research showed
that the price of commercially modified bovine milk massively un-
derestimated the economic value of mothers’ milk and it was more
appropriate to use the market price of expressed breast milk to
value the supply of human milk (Smith, Ingham and Dunstone;
Smith “Human Milk Supply”).
Many people are surprised that markets in mothers’ milk exist.
Hospitals and milk banks exchange and sell donated breast milk,
human milk is traded through the Internet, and breastfeeding ser-
vices are sold by wet nurses. In the past five years, the “market”
for human milk has expanded considerably. In 2009, ten North
American milk banks distributed 1.5 million ounces of human milk
for US$3 an ounce or $127 ($A153) a litre. In Europe it sold for
e130 (A$222) per litre; a price reflecting costs of processing and
storing donated milk.
Usually milk banking is conducted on a not for profit basis,
but a for-profit company now sells donated and highly processed
human milk for use in neonatal intensive care units at a price of
around US$1183 (A$1429) a litre.
Individual women have also responded to demand for breast
milk by expanding informal systems for milk exchange, facilitated
by the Internet. Websites such as “Eats On Feet” help mothers
share their milk with other mothers—recipients pay shipping costs
only. Other sites such as “Only The Breast” operate systems for
trading milk, its philosophy being to recompense mothers for costs
including their time. Breast milk is bought and sold on this site
for about US$2 an ounce, or US$131 a litre.
There is also a market for wet nurses. Wet nurses advertise
with “Only The Breast” at around US$50 per day ranging up to
$150-200 per day where childcare or housework is also oered. U.S.
employment agencies quote wages of around US$1,000 a week for
wet nurses while a recent media report cited wages in China of
US$10,000-25,000 per year.
As pointed out in 1988 “an inadequately fed infant is a cost to
the health system, . . . to the education system (because of brain
development), and to society generally” (Waring, 207). National
accounting experts now acknowledge the crucial, unpaid role of
families in building human capital (Abraham and Mackie).
Breastfeeding contributes uniquely to human development thr-
ough providing uniquely species-appropriate nutrition and care for
infants and young children. Lack of breastfeeding is now a recog-
nized risk factor for chronic disease in adulthood, as well as for
acute infectious illness during infancy and childhood. Mothers’
health is adversely aected by premature weaning, through higher
incidence of depression and mental illness, and increased rates of
breast cancer and other disorders among women with short breast-
feeding duration (American Academy of Pediatrics et al.). Over
a million infants a year die needlessly from lack of breastfeeding;
improving breastfeeding practices is the most eective and cost ef-
fective intervention to improve mother and child health globally
(Bhutta et al. 417-40; Black et al.).
Breastfeeding minimises health care costs. Several studies have
estimated health care system costs attributable to formula feed-
ing. The cost of pediatric health care and premature death at-
tributable to formula feeding in the United States is around US$13
billion annually (Bartick and Reinhold e1048); it is also a signif-
icant proportion of acute and chronic disease costs in Australia
(Smith, Thompson and Ellwood; Smith and Harvey).
Well conducted cohort and experimental studies in several coun-
tries now provide strong evidence that those deprived of human
milk or breastfeeding in infancy have poorer cognitive and aca-
demic achievement in later life (Kramer et al.; Sacker, Quigley
and Kelly; Oddy et al.). Ending exclusive breastfeeding before 4
months is estimated to reduce IQ by 3-7 percentage points, with
larger impacts for premature or small-for-gestational-age infants.
This is comparable with the eects on child cognitive development
of pre-natal lead exposure (Walker et al. , Table 4). Lifetime costs
of special education for preterm infants in Australia would be $32
million lower if 20 per cent more were fed breast milk rather than
exclusively formula fed (Drane).
Nobel Laureate James Heckman and colleagues (Heckman, Mas-
terov and National Bureau of Economic; Doyle et al.) have shown
the economic importance of early investments in children. They
quantify how early childhood experiences influence the develop-
ment of cognitive skills, socio-emotional functioning and health,
and culminate in a way that measurably aects later life earnings
and productivity.
Revealing women’s time costs of breastfeeding can help redistribute
the costs of care more widely in society; it is mainly others who ben-
efit from women’s time investment in breastfeeding (Smith “Moth-
ers’ Milk”). Failing to count women’s time distorts public policies
and results in long term economic loss as market work is favoured
over economically valuable but unpaid care and nourishment of
Some consider loss of employment opportunities as a cost of
breastfeeding. However, the true picture is more complex (Van Es-
terik and Greiner). Rather than employment per se, factors such
as travel time and distance to work, employment conditions, and
workplace arrangements may be the critical determinants of breast-
feeding continuation among employed mothers. Whether employed
women have any real decision-making power over infant feeding
methods is determined by structural and economic factors and is
not simply a matter of personal choice or biology (Quandt; Galtry).
Our Australian Time Use Survey of New Mothers (TUSNM)
found that having an infant added 44 hours a week to a woman’s
unpaid workload (Smith and Ellwood), and revealed the high time
cost of breastfeeding in a developed country setting. It also showed
that exclusive breastfeeding of infants for 6 months took around 17-
20 hours a week of mothers’ time, much less than formula fed or
partially weaned infants.
Time is also important to understanding which mothers can-
not aord to breastfeed, or “rationally” decide not to. For mothers
without adequate family support, early weaning from breastfeed-
ing gives them more time, whether for leisure, housework, personal
care or employment. This may more than compensate for extra
costs of commercial baby food and health care. A recent US study
showed breastfeeding mothers suered greater earning losses than
other mothers due to longer labour force withdrawal (Rippeyoung
and Noonan). Empirical research in Canada (Baker and Milligan),
the U.S. (Mandal, Roe and Fein) and the U.K. (Hawkins, Griths
and Dezateux), shows that breastfeeding is increased if mothers
get more time such as through extended paid maternity leave. On
the other hand, breastfeeding in the US was reduced by welfare
reforms encouraging return to work by 12 weeks (Chatterji and
Frick). Promotion of breastfeeding as free or costless has been “a
convenient tool used by states to avoid responsibility for taking on
more costly solutions to children’s and women’s health” (Rippey-
oung, 36). How making visible these economic aspects of breast-
feeding links to pursuing economic justice for women is discussed
A focus on the economic value of breastfeeding and breast milk has
made women’s lactation work more visible and assisted women’s
advocacy on breastfeeding and maternity care. Influenced by Count-
ing for Nothing and research on the economics of breastfeeding,
the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA), then known as
Nursing Mothers’ Association of Australia, began advocating for
including breastfeeding in GDP in 1999. By 2002, its representa-
tions to federal parliamentarians would present research evidence
of health cost savings from breastfeeding. The following year, this
research was cited in Australia’s new dietary guidelines on infant
feeding (National Health and Medical Research Council).
In 2004 the Association’s National Breastfeeding Leadership Plan
recommended including breastfeeding in national food production
statistics and GDP to increase the health policy priority of breast-
feeding. ABA’s 2006 submission to the Australian Treasury used
evidence on health system cost savings (Smith, Thompson and
Ellwood) to successfully advocate federal government funding of
breastfeeding support measures—the May 2007 Budget announced
$8.7 million for a requested national breastfeeding helpline and
health professional training.
ABA advocacy citing health system cost savings also triggered
a parliamentary inquiry on the benefits of breastfeeding in late
2006. Public submissions highlighted the economic contribution
that women make by breastfeeding. The 2007 Best Start Re-
port (Commonwealth of Australia, 53-58) urged further research
on economic impacts to drive government action and investment
in breastfeeding support. The Inquiry also heard evidence on the
time costs of breastfeeding, and its Report (54) acknowledged the
failure to properly recognize its time-intensity and economic cost to
women. It stopped short of recommending paid maternity leave,
but meanwhile the Australian government moved towards intro-
ducing a new national scheme.
The 2007 Australian Productivity Commission Inquiry into Paid
Parental Leave invited evidence on the time costs of breastfeed-
ing and on its economic importance, and in 2009, recommended
a publicly funded scheme for 18 weeks paid parental leave. It ex-
pected that as a result, “more women will be able to have longer,
beneficial interactions in the early phase of their babies’ lives and
to breastfeed for longer” (Productivity Commission, XX11). The
Commission was influenced by the health cost savings from breast-
feeding, concluding that the economic costs of not breastfeeding
were significant for developed as well as poor countries (Productiv-
ity Commission, 4.24).
Why is it that when we pay for childcare and house-
cleaning, when we eat out, when we buy milk for our
babies, or when we call in the mechanic or the plumber,
these add to GDP and count toward economic growth
and progress; but when we look after our own children,
clear our own house, cook our own meals, breastfeed our
babies, tune up our own cars, and fix our own leaking
faucets, these have no value in our current measures of
progress? (Collas-Monsod Removing the Cloak 98)
Despite breastfeeding’s crucial importance for infant health and
survival, national statisticians do not count human milk as a food.
Not including breast milk and breastfeeding in GDP is in fact con-
trary to United Nations’ guidelines.
Revised international guidelines were published for National Ac-
counting in 1993 (commonly referred to as SNA93) (Commission
of the European Communities). SNA93 was revised to take better
account of “subsistence” production; GDP should include all “own
account” production of goods by households. This includes agri-
cultural subsistence production such as sowing, planting, tending
and harvesting field crops; growing vegetables, fruit and other trees
and shrub crops; gathering wild fruits, medicinal and other plants;
tending, feeding or hunting animals mainly to obtain meat, milk,
hair, skin or other products; and storing or carrying to some basic
processing of this produce.
SNA93 also included in GDP any agricultural produce con-
sumed on-farm. The national accounting framework thus included
all non-marketed goods, including the production, processing and
storage of food by households, within the GDP production bound-
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) includes the value
of homegrown fruit, vegetables, eggs, beer, wine and meat in esti-
mates of final private consumption expenditure and therefore GDP.
Australian core accounts now include “the own account production
of all goods retained by their producers for their own final consump-
tion or gross capital formation” (”Unpaid Work and the Australian
Economy”, 46), where these are quantitatively significant, thereby
following the practice set down in SNA93 (para 6.18).
The preferred approach to valuing production in the national
accounts system is using market values. The fundamental criteria
for inclusion of a good is that it can be traded in a market. The
existence of markets in human milk (see above, Section 1) means
there are prices of a closely related or analogous product - a shadow
price - from which to impute its economic value.
We have shown human is defined as a good within the SNA93
core production boundary (Smith and Ingham “Mothers’ Milk”;
Smith and Ingham “Breastfeeding”) because, in national accounting
language, it can be produced, stored, sold on markets, and thus be
valued (Commission of the European Communities, para. 6.7).
Demonstrably, the value of human milk production can be es-
timated using accepted valuation methods for national accounting
an input based, wage cost approach (replacement wage, opportu-
nity cost), or using the market value of the output (Smith “Human
Milk Supply”). Estimated annual human milk production in Aus-
tralia in 1992 was 33 million kg. Using a market value of output
approach to valuing production in a national accounts framework
(i.e. a price of US$50 per litre used for the Norwegian study (Os-
haug and Botten)), this had a market value of $2.1 billion a year.
This is qualitatively important compared to other goods pro-
duced for own consumption by households which were valued at $1
billion in 1997 and are counted in GDP by the ABS. This means
that the production and value of human milk should be included in
core account estimates of national food production, consumption
and GDP.
Others agree that GDP wrongly excludes breast milk. The 2009
French Presidential Commission on the Measurement of Economic
Performance and Social Progress, led by two Nobel Laureates in
economics, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, cited the example of
breastfeeding to illustrate how exclusion from GDP devalued im-
portant non-market work and biased policies against unpaid pro-
There is a serious omission in the valuation of home-
produced goods the value of breast milk. This is
clearly within the System of National Accounts produc-
tion boundary, is quantitatively non-trivial and also has
important implications for public policy and child and
maternal health. (Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi, 39)
Including breast milk in GDP is important not only because it
acknowledges women’s lactation work. It also provides a focus
for government actions to promote economic growth and develop-
ment. For example, if breastfeeding in Australia increased to levels
recommended by the World Health Organisation, this would add
around $3.7 billion annually (0.7%) to GDP (Smith and Ingham
“Breastfeeding and the measurement”).
Breast milk is still not included in GDP—why not? In 1990 the
Australian Government was advised that unpaid work should con-
tinue to be excluded from GDP because the market sector was
the primary concern for macroeconomic policy and because unpaid
household work was not related to market forces as directly as
goods (Australian Bureau of Statistics “Measuring Unpaid House-
hold Work”, 6-7).
These arguments do not apply to human milk production. Pro-
duction levels of human milk are closely related to market activity,
with direct competition to breastfeeding from companies selling
and profiting from sale of infant feeding products. Labour market
participation and breast milk production compete directly (Man-
dal, Roe and Fein 1-21). It is also questionable as to whether other
conventional arguments for excluding unpaid work from GDP ap-
ply to human milk production. For example, Collas-Monsad (Re-
moving the Cloak) has identified arguments that excluding unpaid
work is necessary to maintain the usefulness of the accounts to
policymakers. It is said to avoid “overburdening or disrupting the
central system” (Commission of the European Communities, para.
However, excluding human milk production from GDP means
that Australia’s policymakers focus on promoting the activities of
commercial firms producing less than $200 million of infant food
products per year, whilst giving no importance to protecting house-
hold production of human milk worth $2 billion a year or more. It
is dicult to see why disrupting the system by comparing these val-
ues is undesirable, or why it overburdens policy analysis to show the
large magnitude of non market production of infant food. Likewise,
including breastfeeding in GDP would surely enhance monitoring
and analysis of long term productivity trends and patterns in the
food, nutrition, childcare and health sectors.
Women’s work is still not measured in key economic statistics
because of the costs involved in changing the collection and use
of national accounts (Fraumeni). Experience in the Philippines
suggests only “demand driven advocacy” will improve national ac-
counting practices (Virola et al.; Collas-Monsod). Unfortunately,
few understand how such statistics can be used for better decision-
making, or how to use them for advocacy. Without such pressures,
statisticians will do little about introducing them—though “what
we don’t know could hurt us” (Abraham 3-18, 1).
Why do statistics matter? In simple terms, they are
the evidence on which policies are built. They help to
identify needs, set goals and monitor progress. With-
out good statistics, the development process is blind:
policy-makers cannot learn from their mistakes, and the
public cannot hold them accountable (World Bank, vii).
National accounts provide a misleading picture of human food
production and consumption activities. Present practice has the
startling result that increased breastfeeding and human milk pro-
duction reduces national food output and GDP, because it lowers
artificial formula and commercial baby food sales and reduces pri-
vate and public health expenditures, which are measured. Unmea-
sured are economic benefits of using more of an environmentally-
friendly and high quality food resource, and economic resource sav-
ings from reducing illness and disease and lesser use of medical
services or products.
An equally questionable corollary of the current GDP measure-
ment practice is that the dramatic worldwide drop in breastfeed-
ing rates during the 1960s and 1970s inaccurately showed higher
national output and economic growth from expanded production
of formula and higher national health expenditures. This same
practice of ignoring the loss of household production now grossly
distorts measurement of economic progress in countries like China
and India, and overstates economic growth.
The ability of women to breastfeed is a form of national wealth.
Yet, the economic returns from this human capital asset are not
counted as contributing to GDP or economic well-being. This ren-
ders a major national asset invisible to policymakers who use these
economic statistics and GDP estimates to determine economic pri-
orities. If it were visible, more policies and programs would be
directed at protecting and enhancing breastfeeding knowledge and
As the World Bank reinforces in the above quotation, economic
development policies which consider only market activities will be
misguided in design and poorly implemented, even counterproduc-
tive. Economic waste and lower national productivity, as well as
gender inequity result from what is, in eect, “flying blind with
It is the SNA that threw a cloak over women’s contri-
butions, that cloak should and can be removed. (Collas-
Monsod, “Integrating Unpaid Work into Macroeconomics”)
Counting for Nothing gave impetus to women’s push for greater
recognition of their productive and reproductive work, and has
inspired eorts to give women’s work greater visibility as well as
improving economic justice for women. Women’s lactation work
can be shown to at least “count for something” in the public eye.
Despite reservations that chasing better economic statistics could
be a blind alley for those pursing gender equity, in this case at
least, “the accounting project” has helped achieve some economic
justice for women.
Breastfeeding illustrates how improving the visibility of women’s
contribution to well-being using economic statistics has been suc-
cessfully linked to policy measures giving economic recognition to
those investing time in caregiving, and helping redistribute the cost
of care in Australia.
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  • ... A variety of practical and conceptual barriers have been put forward by statistical agencies against including household work in GDP (17,18,194,196,197) . Objections might include a) that its production is not related to market activity or economic pricing, and b) that its inclusion would disrupt conventional measures of output, as the large size of household production swamps the value of market production in the total economy. ...
    ... As well as illustrating that GDP overstates the extent of economic growth in some emerging economies compared to others where policy and other variables better maintain households' production levels of human milk and breastfeeding, it can be argued that because of the nonmeasurement of these goods and services in GDP, the dramatic shift in infant and young child food production activity from the household to the market sector during the past half century in both developed and developing countries has passed unobserved, and its negative externalities unrecorded. It can be expected that the invisibility of such a shift and the economic production value being lost has resulted in policy inaction and bias (191) , which adversely affects gender equity and well-being of mothers and children, as well as the quality of the human capital stock and future economic productivity (10,145,196) . ...
    Conference Paper
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    This paper addresses debates about the future beyond GDP, by arguing for the usefulness of measuring breastfeeding and human milk in GDP as an alternative indicator of population well-being, through experimental estimates within the System of National Accounts (SNA) framework. As the S-S-F Commission acknowledged, human milk epitomizes how current assessment of economic activity which excludes non market production is biased, and can distort policy. It is clearly within the SNA production boundary, is quantitatively non-trivial and has important implications for public policy including health. Here it is shown that focussing on breastfeeding fits within a capabilities framework and facilitates exploration of objective measures of quality of life that can be integrated with several key areas of concern about existing GDP measurement practices. Key focus areas are: time inputs to unpaid household production via breastfeeding, as an indicator of gender equity in work and well-being, and of policy recognition; human milk as valuable household food production in core GDP; unpaid household inputs into human capital formation via early life nutrition and care; negative externalities of breastmilk substitutes (such as health costs and environmental depreciation and depletion). JEL Subject Codes: I120; J160; E100
  • ... The paper by Elien Rouw and colleagues [51] well illustrates the perverse economic incentives that operate for mothers, hospitals and health care professionals in Germany, who face significant financial penalties for breastfeeding or its protection, support or promotion. Public policy on the other hand, may neglect breastfeeding because its economic worth is rarely measured in economic terms [52], and because women's economic contribution through time spent in breastfeeding and other unpaid care work is often discounted and ignored, and, therefore, invisible [53]. ...
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    This introduction to a special issue on the economics of breastfeeding draws attention to the lack of economic justice for women. Human milk is being bought and sold. Commodifying and marketing human milk and breastfeeding risk reinforcing social and gender economic inequities. Yet there are potential benefits for breastfeeding, and some of the world’s poorest women might profit. How can we improve on the present situation where everyone except the woman who donates her milk benefits? Breastfeeding is a global food production system with unsurpassed capacity to promote children’s food security and maternal and child health, but it is side-lined by trade negotiators who seek instead to expand world markets for cow’s milk-based formula. Regulators focus on potential risks of feeding donated human milk, rather than on health risks of exposing infants and young children to highly processed bovine milk. Similarly, policymakers aspire to provide universal health care access that may be unaffordable when two thirds of the world’s children are not optimally nourished in infancy, resulting in a global double burden of infectious and chronic disease. Universal breastfeeding requires greater commitment of resources, but such investment remains lacking despite the cost effectiveness of breastfeeding protection, support and promotion in and beyond health services. Women invest substantially in breastfeeding but current policy - epitomised by the G20 approach to the ‘gender gap’ - fails to acknowledge the economic value of this unpaid care work. Economic incentives for mothers to optimally breastfeed are dwarfed by health system and commercial incentives promoting formula feeding and by government fiscal policies which ignore the resulting economic costs. ‘The market’ fails to protect breastfeeding, because market prices give the wrong signals. An economic approach to the problem of premature weaning from optimal breastfeeding may help prioritise global maternity protection as the foundation for sustainable development of human capital and labour productivity. It would remove fiscal subsidies for breast milk substitutes, tax their sale to recoup health system costs, and penalise their free supply, promotion and distribution. By removing widespread incentives for premature weaning, the resources would be available for the world to invest more in breastfeeding.
  • ... National accounting experts now make some acknowledgment of the crucial, unpaid role of families in building human capital, such as through investments of parental time in health care and education (Abraham and Mackie 2005: 79-93). However, more than two decades on from Waring's thesis, the problem of valuing breastfeeding in economic statistics remains largely unaddressed and ignored in public policy formulation (Smith 2014a). ...
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    Breastfeeding is rarely seen as an economic policy issue. Many view the idea of placing a dollar value on mothers’ milk as repugnant. Breastfeeding cannot be framed as simply an economic relationship. It is a complex, physiological, emotional and social relationship between mother and child, intricately related to the nature of the society, community and family in which they live. Furthermore, the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding fall both on individuals and on society as a whole. Yet in a world where not valuing something in dollar terms means it is not valued at all, this economic invisibility can have major consequences for the ‘market’ for mother’s milk, for infant and maternal health and wellbeing, and for appropriate public policy. In recent years, aspects of international trade and investment agreements have raised concerns that trade policy priorities may adversely affect governments’ ability to protect public health and nutrition (Gleeson and Friel 2013; Lopert and Gleeson 2013). Trade liberalisation stimulates demand, through increasing competition, lowering prices and triggering greater product promotion. When the increased demand is for products like tobacco and unhealthy food, opening up markets raises serious concerns for public health. Thirty years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) negotiated a pioneering agreement called the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (henceforth, the International Code) to regulate the unethical marketing of infant formula and baby foods (WHO 1981). The 1981 International Code was one of the earliest international initiatives to address global regulation of food safety standards and misleading health claims and marketing, and a precursor to the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Among other things, the International Code regulated direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of breastmilk substitutes, and limited marketing to hospitals and health professionals, as well as promoting regulatory measures for safe feeding of children fed on infant formula. The International Code was based on recognition of the importance of protecting breastfeeding, and of the unique vulnerability of mothers and their infants and young children to inappropriate marketing and promotion of commercial baby foods. The World Health Organisation/UNICEF Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding (WHO/UNICEF 2003) (henceforth, the WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy) recommends exclusive breastfeeding to 6 months, and continued breastfeeding to 2 years and beyond. Global sales growth of 10-20 per cent a year in commercially-produced baby foods far exceeds the birth rate (Euromonitor International 2013). This growth is at the expense of breastfeeding. A recent Lancet study shows that 800,000 babies die each year, mainly in Asia, simply because they are prematurely weaned from breastfeeding (Black et al. 2013). In developed countries, it adds significantly to national health costs (Bartick and Reinhold 2010; Bartick et al. 2013; Renfrew et al. 2012; Smith, Thompson and Ellwood 2002). In both settings aggressive industry marketing of substitutes for breastmilk is an important contributing factor. Industry reports reveal that the Asia Pacific region is now the main growth market for the baby food industry, accounting for over US$20 billion of the US$36 billion global growth since 2003 (Euromonitor International 2013). UNICEF has warned that in East Asia and China, breastfeeding rates are falling at an ‘alarming rate’ (UNICEF 2012). In some countries, constraints on unethical marketing are weakening. The 2012 review of the International Code concluded that its global implementation remains inconsistent (WHO 2012b). Despite the alarming trend, there is a surprising silence about the implications of expanding formula exports for breastfeeding practices in the Asia Pacific region (Galtry 2013a). As well as affecting public health in importing countries such as China, protecting breastfeeding creates significant policy conflicts for developed countries in the Asia Pacific region. Australasia presently leads the ‘white gold boom’ in formula exports to China and the Asia Pacific region (Correy 2013). The recent corporate manoeuvring to share in the vast profits from liberalised formula exports to China (Greenblatt 2013; Hemphill 2013; King 2013; Urban 2013; Whitley and Stronger 2013) begs a number of important questions about the net benefits of trade liberalisation in this area, including: 1. To what extent do policymakers value breastfeeding as food production by women, and integrate this into economic policy priorities? 2. How do expanding markets in baby food affect breastfeeding, health and human rights in the Asia Pacific region? 3. Do trade agreements allow undermining of breastfeeding in the region by facilitating market expansion efforts by baby food companies? 4. Do global and national policies adequately protect optimal infant and young child feeding (IYCF)? How effectively is the International Code applied to baby food product promotion and marketing? We begin by addressing the extent to which policymakers acknowledge and integrate the economic value of breastfeeding into economic policy, and incorporate public health recommendations on IYCF into trade and regulatory policy development. We then examine the extent to which trade policy may be reducing breastfeeding in both Australasia and China, and how effectively the International Code and related regulation is applied to baby food marketing in these countries. We conclude on the way ahead by urging the public health community to seek greater prominence for IYCF issues in trade negotiations and regulatory policy. Current deliberations by WHO technical advisors to strengthen the International Code (WHO 2013a) prompts consideration of whether the WHO/UNICEF Global Strategy should be strengthened along the lines of the WHO FCTC.
  • ... These economic costs of breastfeeding to women are poorly measured due to lack of adequate time use statistics and have rarely been acknowledged by public health policy makers. 58 Only 2 studies 8,11 of the economic value of breastfeeding incorporate estimates of the time costs to women; it is unknown whether breastfeeding is time saving or more time consuming than formula feeding. ...
    Full-text available
    Background: The contribution of breastfeeding and mothers milk to the economy is invisible in economic statistics.Objective:This article demonstrates how the economic value of human milk production can be included in economic statistics such as gross domestic product (GDP) and provides estimates for Australia, the United States, and Norway.Methods:The contribution of human milk and lactation to GDP in these countries is estimated using United Nations (System of National Accounting) guidelines and conventional economic valuation approaches to measuring production in GDP.Results:In Australia, current human milk production levels exceed $3 billion annually. The United States has the potential to produce human milk worth more than US$110 billion a year, but currently nearly two thirds of this value is lost due to premature weaning. In Norway, production valued at US$907 million annually is 60% of its potential value.Conclusions:The potential loss of economic value from not protecting women's lactation and milk production from competing market pressures is large. Failure to account for mothers' milk production in GDP and other economic data has important consequences for public policy. The invisibility of human milk reduces the perceived importance of programs and regulations that protect and support women to breastfeed. The value of human milk can be measured using accepted international guidelines for calculating national income and production. It is quantitatively nontrivial and should be counted in GDP.
  • Article
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    Preface The persistent failure of governments to invest significantly in breast feeding is hard to comprehend. With evidence beyond doubt that tobacco kills around 1.5 million people a year from lung cancer, governments and agencies such as WHO now act forcefully and in unison to prevent its insidious promotion. Yet ten years after The Lancet series’ staggering revelations showing more than a million infants and young children die annually from diarrhoea and related infections because they are deprived of the right milk - breastfeeding, around a million babies still die and government investment in breastfeeding remains minimal, or zero, in most countries. The benefits of human milk for human infants are so obvious, and so well established, supported time and again by rigorous science, that organisations like IBFAN should not need to gather yet more figures, or mount yet more arguments for investment in breastfeeding. The simple, stark facts are that breastfeeding saves lives; lack of human milk means human babies die. Moreover, future quality of life is at issue. Strong evidence from randomised trials shows the average effect of early weaning from exclusive breastfeeding is to reduce a child’s IQ by 3-7 IQ points. This is comparable with prenatal lead exposure, with cognitive damage akin to several months of wasted schooling. How can any country afford such waste? Indeed, why in some countries, is the formula industry subsidised to actively promote this loss of human capability and productivity? In the US, as this most comprehensive report points out, the cost of prematurely weaning babies is some $13 billion and hundreds of lives annually. There, 1.4 million babies are born each year; in China, it is over 16 million, worldwide 135 million. The economic and financial cost of ‘losing’ mothers’ milk for these children is incalculable. Why the silence about the avoidable premature deaths of countless, and uncounted, women worldwide? Again, the evidence on the harm to women of premature weaning is indisputable. Short duration or no breastfeeding increases breast cancer risk, and postpartum haemorrhage. Women die from not breastfeeding long enough. A mother separated from her infant, whether by poor quality maternity care or by working for a living, faces higher health risks because breastfeeding is made harder. Yet, the costs that arise from this, such as for breast cancer, are only measured for the US and the UK. Surely, the lives of women and children count for more than this! Worldwide, women produce around 23 billion litres of milk a year, a ‘health food’ for babies and young children that far surpasses anything that industry makes available. With proper support for optimal breastfeeding, women might offer nearly twice that amount. In the developed world, where exclusive breastfeeding at six months is so rare it can barely be found without huge population surveys, the value of breastmilk is such that hospitals and health funds pay companies – not women – hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a litre to acquire it. The burdens of suboptimal infant and young child feeding fall on health systems, governments and nations, as well as women and babies, and the cost is not in dollars alone. The human misery, suffering and grief must also be accounted for. Babies deprived of care, protection and sustenance from their mothers are uniquely vulnerable. Emerging scientific research now signals greater maternal abuse and neglect of children, as well as maternal depression, among mothers unable to sustain breastfeeding. No-one can deny the advances in public health wrought by industrialisation and market development. As markets expand, new products and work opportunities emerge. Access to health care and better maternity services may improve. Economic development may truly benefit women and children. But the unrestrained expansion of markets in infant formula, as experience has shown, has caused incalculable, sometimes irreversible, damage to breastfeeding. Existence of the 1981 WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions acknowledges the particular vulnerability of infants to inappropriate feeding practices. Today, the twin economic forces against breastfeeding, the persuasive spin undermining breastfeeding including marketing via health systems, and formula as a solution for time-pressed working women, are growing. Formula sales are booming. Since 2007 sales have risen from $5 billion to $13 billion in China alone. Companies may be investing some $3-4 billion dollars a year to promote their baby food products. Hospitals, health workers and working women are targeted to increase sales, especially the highly profitable ‘specialised formulas’ or ‘follow on formulas’. Competition for market share expands the market. Yet all such products are a proven poor substitute for a mother’s own milk. Who is promoting the truly priceless gift of breastfeeding? How could it happen, so unrestrainedly, so universally that formula is promoted instead? Inexplicably, international agencies and governments view breastfeeding as a ‘best buy’, but invest pitifully small amounts of energy and money in protecting it, and the women who provide it. Women ‘invest’ in breastfeeding, as they always have, through the hours of time, and skill that they devote to breastfeeding their infant. Many pay a cost to do so – lost earnings, or even depleting their own bodily reserves. Civil society has a vital role in reminding governments of the need to counter not only the commercial propaganda against breastfeeding, and its subversive undervaluing of mothers’ milk, but also the costs of failing to provide the maternity protections needed for women to breastfeed whilst sharing in gains from economic development. Previous work by IBFAN has shown the clear need for a more focussed investment of resources in breastfeeding. Present policies and practices are far from what is required if we are to protect, promote and support breastfeeding in the face of market forces. This publication and the strategy it outlines will address that need, and show that, if supported by regulation of baby food marketing, investments in mother to mother support, maternity leave, and Baby Friendly Hospitals will pay off. Most importantly, we must make breastfeeding a priority by resourcing it. Not with words. But with what counts against the Hidden Persuaders of Big Pharma and Big Food – money and influence. This new report must not gather dust. It is a graphic reminder of the pop song warning: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’. Governments and international agencies must commit resources of money and influence to the effective implementation of the WHO Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding, and fiercely enforce rules against ‘The Whisperers’ promoting formula feeding. Breastfeeding cannot compete in the global market or indeed in the health care system without steadfast community support. Women alone cannot be burdened with responsibilities to choose breastfeeding – especially when it may mean deciding between their own life or livelihood and the life of their child. It is our responsibility – the global village that raises the child - to invest in scaling up breastfeeding, and this document shows the way.
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