Gina Rinehart's dairy investment contrasts with undervalued breast milk

Gina Rinehart is on to something. The woman who picked the mining boom by betting on iron ore at a time when few realised what was about to happen in China, she is now betting on powdered milk.

So fast is China's market for infant formula growing that it doubled in five years and is expected to double again in three years. It's why foreign companies are falling over themselves to take over Australian milk producers.

And it's why the richest Australian is spending half a billion to build Hope Dairies from scratch. Bloomberg reports it'll take up 5000 hectares of Queensland farmland pumping out an extraordinary 30,000 tonnes of infant formula per year, all of it bound for China, gazumping Australia's present milk powder exports to China of 18,000 tonnes per year.

It would be great if it actually helped Chinese infants. But it won't. Infant formula is one of those rare products the use of which usually hurts rather than helps the user. And unlike others such as alcohol and unhealthy foods the user has no choice but to use it.

Formula milk displaces breast milk, a wonder-food specifically designed for emerging human beings. Formula-fed babies are less resistant to infection, more likely to suffer from diarrhoea and pneumonia and more likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome. Later in life they are more likely to contract diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and cancer. And they are likely to have lower IQs.

And that's where formula milk is prepared properly. Where it isn't – where water is tainted or where hygiene is bad – the results can be lethal. In 2008 around 54,000 Chinese babies were hospitalised after ingesting a chemical added to formula to give it a higher apparent protein content.

Yet the way we treat formula milk and breast milk in our national accounts is bizarre.

When more formula milk is produced or consumed we say that Australia's (or China's) gross domestic product has gone up. GDP is regarded as a measure of standard of living.

But our standard of living will have got worse. Breast milk is an incomparably superior product that formula necessarily displaces, and it isn't counted in GDP.

But it should be. Breast milk can be stored, exchanged and traded, like other foods. In Norway hospitals sell it for around US$100 per litre. 

An Australian study back in 1992 put the value of breast milk at $67 per litre. (By way of comparison wine often costs $20 per litre, petrol costs $1.60.) Multiplied by the number of litres produced it implied that more than $2 billion was missing from Australia's national accounts, around 0.5 per cent of GDP. At the time the sales of formula were worth $135 million.

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