Australia is playing a role in what may be a global wipe-out of one of the world's largest public health assets - the capacity of women to breastfeed their infants and young children
A new global report on the human and economic costs of declining rates of breastfeeding has slammed the infant formula industry, corrupt marketing practices, and governments which allow unregulated formula exports.
Dr Julie Smith, Australian National University researcher and fellow at the Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health, said the Australian government should do more to limit the global reach of local formula producers increasing market share into Asia and the Pacific. The new report on the parlous state of breastfeeding, The Need to Invest in Babies - A Global Drive for Financial Investment in Children's Health and Development through Universalising Interventions for Optimal Breastfeeding, will be launched in Parliament House on Wednesday by World Vision chief executive Reverend Tim Costello.
Written in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network, the report blames unfettered export opportunities and corrupt marketing of formula to mothers in health-care facilities in developing nations for dramatically falling breastfeeding rates.
Dr Smith said that Australia could better invest in its own national breastfeeding strategy, but also needed to consider its impact as an exporter of breast milk substitutes as well as an aid donor on exacerbating an international problem.
''Australia has been a global leader in recognising the risks of tobacco and reducing deaths from smoking. We know that breastfeeding is rapidly diminishing in some countries in our region as breast milk substitutes are heavily promoted to women,'' Dr Smith said.
''The impact of that is an increase in maternal and child death, and increased long-term burden on health systems. Ten years ago, The Lancet published research that found a million infant and young children die each year because they are deprived of the right milk.''
Dr Smith described the recent corporate battle for ownership of the Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Company as ''a war about corporate positioning to ride a tsunami of infant formula sales to Asia and the Pacific''.
China and Indonesia were driving formula sales, with more than 60 per cent of poor rural women in China breastfeeding in 2000 and that rate falling to just 30 per cent by 2005.
Formula sales in China have doubled in the past five years - and are set to double again by 2017.
Dr Smith said Australian and New Zealand companies had 30 per cent of the lucrative Chinese import market. With the market for formula in Asia worth billions of dollars - and about $12.5 billion in China alone - fierce competition had resulted, with formula companies in China bribing hospital officials and doctors into promoting their brand. Dr Smith said Australia faced a dilemma. While Ausaid's Asia Pacific policy stated Australia's responsibilities in providing development assistance and emergency aid did not create new markets for breast milk substitutes in the region, Australia's unregulated formula trade was contradicting that.
''Australia will not be seen as a good neighbour … if our prosperity rests on profit from marketing products which sicken and kill infants and young children, and most importantly, which undermine governments' protective policies for women and their children,'' Dr Smith said.