For years, countries have used GDP to measure economic output – using the economic values of various activities as guides to policymaking. But for every country except Norway, the value of breastmilk has never been so considered. With the release of the Mothers' Milk Tool, we’re finally taking an important step toward addressing this serious omission.
The new tool, developed by Alive & Thrive and Australia National University with support from the FHI Solutions Innovation Incubator, uses widely available data to estimate the value of breastmilk – produced by an individual or by all mothers in a given country. It also includes a variety of resources including an advocacy brief that people can print out to speak to their elected representatives about this issue.
Access the tool here. This is an Excel file that is fully functioning in Windows Operating system. Compatibility issues with Mac IOS are being addressed.
Read more about the tool in the Mothers' Milk Information Toolkit.
The reality is what we measure matters – because economic figures and statistics are the language policymakers speak. By not putting a value on the breastmilk mothers produce, policymakers simply do not know how valuable breastmilk is – and so maternity protection and programs to enable breastfeeding are not adopted and budgeted appropriately.
Dr Julie Smith, a leading economist and member of the team that developed the new tool, introduced the tool during a recent webinar (Watch the webinar for a comprehensive presentation of the tool in the video below). She made the compelling case for putting a value on breastmilk.
“At the biennial general conference of the International Association for Research on Income and Wealth in Korea in 2017, the OECD’s chief statistician asked me, ‘Why would you do this? It's about mother's love, not money!’” she recalled. “And my answer was that this invisibility affects its perceived importance – and so it affects policy priorities and budgets, and resourcing of what women do.
“Highlighting the national economic impact of breastfeeding underlines its importance and the desirability of protecting it, emphasizes its extent and its value and gives women a sense of pride,” she continued. “From a policymaker viewpoint, a more comprehensive knowledge of the nature and locus of economic activity also contributes to better economic public policy analysis.”
I’m excited and proud to have been a part of this groundbreaking work. Around the world and for generations, the contributions of women have too often gone unrecognized and unvalued. We see this in many aspects of societies. It renders women virtually invisible.
The undervaluing of breastfeeding has tragic consequences. Our Cost of Not Breastfeeding tool illustrates the case starkly: more than 600,000 children and 100,000 women die every year, and the world loses roughly $1 billion a day due to inadequate breastfeeding.
The Mothers' Milk Tool not only allows a mother to see the value of her breastmilk – it also allows us to see the terrible economic losses that occur due to low rates of breastfeeding, what we refer to as Lost Mother’s Milk. This is the amount of mother’s milk that is effectively lost because governments are not investing adequately to support breastfeeding.
According to the tool, every year the world loses almost 22 billion liters of human breastmilk because governments fail to invest in programs to support women to breastfeed. Even at a low estimate of $100 per liter, we’re losing $2.2 trillion per year. That’s trillion with a T.
These losses are staggering and make it urgently clear that we must do much more to protect motherhood and support breastfeeding.
One of the biggest investments needed includes enacting at least six months paid maternity leave for women working in both the formal and informal sector. It is important to align this period of paid maternity leave with the recommended exclusive breastfeeding duration as it requires mothers and babies being close together. Furthermore, other maternity protection provisions, including workplace policies, need to be in place to support continued breastfeeding for two years - or as long as mothers want - when they return to work.
Other policy actions include ending exploitative marketing of commercial formula milk and other products under the scope of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent related World Health Assembly Resolutions, such as feeding bottles and teats. The health system also needs to improve access to skilled breastfeeding counseling and implement the ten steps for successful breastfeeding in health facilities. This also means strengthening links between health facilities and communities, and encouraging community networks.
Many countries are not assessing their breastfeeding rates regularly, which is a women’s rights issue and clear indication that these governments are not fulfilling their obligation under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These monitoring systems need to be in place and also track the progress of policies, programs, and funding towards achieving both national and global breastfeeding targets.
The Mothers’ Milk Tool also comes with a new and very specific ask: To count breastfeeding and mothers’ milk production in national food balance sheets, food statistics, and food surveillance systems. This requires us to also work with the systems for national accounts.
Armed with this new tool, I am hopeful policymakers will recognize what a tremendous opportunity they have to improve the lives of women, children, and all of society.
Roger Mathisen is the Alive & Thrive Southeast Region Program Director and leads the FHI Solutions Innovation Incubator.