What if we counted breastmilk production as part of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the same way that we count formula production? In 2016, the three leading manufacturers of infant formula reported 1.5 billion US dollars in sales and this was counted in the GDP.
US formula sales are part of the good news of our economy because of the skewed way that we count things: we don’t count the health savings from breastfeeding or the actual value of breast milk production in our GDP.
As Dr. Julie Smith explains in her paper, “Including household production in the System of National Accounts (SNA)—exploring the implications of breastfeeding and human provision,”
Ignoring shifts from home production to market production seriously biases estimates of changes in societal well being, and policies which encourage market over non- market production distort the economy.
Health care savings from breastfeeding
In 1997, nursing professor Jan Riordan calculated a potential US health cost savings from breastfeeding of over $1 billion per year. By 2001, the health savings were calculated to be $3.1 billion a year. But this is just cost savings. What if we calculated the value of breastmilk production itself?
The value of breast milk production internationally
A study in the 1980s calculated that the one billion liters of breastmilk produced annually by Indonesian mothers would cost $400 million to replace with formula.
In 1993 it was estimated that—if the 51% of Indian women then exclusively breastfeeding stopped—it would cost $2.3 billion to replace their breastmilk with formula. Here are some surprising numbers from a 1999 study by Arun Gupta and Kuldeep Khanna:
- The net value of breastmilk produced in Ghana if breastfeeding were optimal would be $165 million.
- If the value of breastmilk were included, the GDP of Zimbabwe would increase by 1%
- If the value of breastmilk were included, the GDP of Mali would increase by 6%.
- In Iran, when exclusive breastfeeding increased from 10% in 1991 to 53% in 1996, the cost of importing breastmilk substitutes declined by $50 million.
- In Norway, hospitals paid $50 for each litre of breast milk in 1992. The 8.2 million litres of breastmilk that Norway produced that year was worth $410 million.
The value of US breastmilk production
What is the value of breast milk production in the United States? I’ve created a value based on three factors:
- The value human milk banks place on human milk. While the guidelines of the Human Milk Bank Association of North America (HMBANA) stipulate that human milk donors not be paid for their milk, the milk banks do incur costs for the collection, processing and distribution of human milk. These costs may range from $3.00 to $5.00 an ounce and are born by hospitals, insurance companies, and recipients.
- The average amount of breastmilk produced per day: 25 ounces.
- Duration of exclusive breastfeeding: six months
At a value of just $3 an ounce, a woman who is exclusively breastfeeding creates $75 worth of breastmilk each day. In a month she creates a value of $2250 worth of breastmilk and in six months, the value of her breastmilk is $13,550. Using the higher figure of $5 an ounce, the value of her breastmilk at six months would be $22,500.
What does this mean on a societal level? Approximately 4 million mothers give birth each year. Of those, 83.2%—or 3,328,000—initiate breastfeeding. Of those 3,328,000, 24.9% are still exclusively breastfeeding at six months. This means that 828,672 US women are still exclusively breastfeeding at six months.
If we apply the value of breastmilk produced by a single US woman in the first six months—$13,550 to $22,500—and multiply that by the 828,672 US women exclusively breastfeeding at six months, we have a value of 11 to 18 billion US dollars, a value far in excess of the sales of infant formula in the US.
Breastmilk production exceeds the value of formula
While my calculations are rudimentary, they suggest that the uncounted economic value of breastmilk is enormous. A more sophisticated analysis by Dr. Julie Smith in “‘Lost milk?’: Counting the economic value of breast milk in gross domestic product,” shows that the United States has the potential to produce human milk worth more than 110 billion US dollars a year, but that currently nearly two thirds of this value is lost due to premature weaning. According to Dr. Smith:
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.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who edits and publishes peggyomara.com. I was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Please sign up for my free newsletter with the latest posts on parenting, activism, and healthy living.