A woman breastfeeding her baby girl at the Da Nang hospital for women and children in Da Nang city, Vietnam. Photo by: Giacomo Pirozzi / Alive

Building healthy, sustainable, and equitable food systems is a critical challenge for the global development community. In this final decade for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, transforming food systems will also be an important part of ending malnutrition in all its forms. But discussions about harnessing food systems to improve nutrition too often ignore the nutrition babies receive from nature’s perfect food system: breastfeeding.

Part of our The Future of Food Systems series

Find out how we can make food fair and healthy for all. Join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems and visit our The Future of Food Systems page for more coverage.

Breastfeeding provides infants with an elegant, efficient, and environmentally sustainable source of nutrition, with powerful health benefits for both mom and baby. Breastmilk is nature’s perfect first food, tailor-made for babies and able to provide all the vitamins, proteins, and fats they need for about the first six months.

Breastmilk also provides powerful antibodies that fight off illness and build immunity, as well as probiotics that aid a baby’s digestion and help build a healthy digestive tract. Amazingly, the composition of mother’s milk changes and adapts as baby grows.

Breastfeeding takes a community

Food systems involve complex moving pieces that work together to bring food from production to our plates. A seed cannot feed a family without countless inputs and interactions, all bolstered by supportive environments, policies, and norms — and the same is true for breastmilk.

Nutrition for Growth is a global effort to bring together country governments, donors and philanthropies, businesses, NGOs, and beyond. The Tokyo N4G Summit 2021 provides a historic opportunity to transform the way the world tackles the global challenge of malnutrition.

Inputs into this food system begin even before pregnancy, as a woman’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about breastfeeding are shaped and her body builds up stores of nutrients that will later appear in her breastmilk. Throughout lactation, women manage both the quantity and quality of their breastmilk production, navigating through environmental barriers and facilitators along the way.

Finally, providing breastmilk to an infant requires time, energy, capacity, and skill — as well as support from everyone: families, policymakers, health facilities, communities, and employers. Some women choose not to or are unable to breastfeed, but specific interventions — such as countries adopting and monitoring the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and relevant World Health Assembly resolutions — are proven to support women who breastfeed, tackling the underlying barriers and providing the support they need to succeed.

Many mothers would like to breastfeed — but only 44% of infants under 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed. Why? Women in every corner of the world face too many barriers to meet their breastfeeding goals. From social and cultural factors to hospital and health care practices and policies, to inadequate paid leave policies and legislation, to aggressive marketing of breast milk substitutes, to a lack of knowledge and adequate skilled support — somewhere along the way, nature’s perfect food system has broken down.

Investing in breastfeeding yields results

COVID-19 has created a risky practice on newborn care, study finds

A new survey of health workers across 62 countries finds that COVID-19 has caused disruptions in newborn care, putting small and sick newborns at increased risk of death.

We can no longer overlook the fact that the breastfeeding system is under threat. As global actors are devoted to transforming food systems to end malnutrition and feed our ever-expanding population into the future, greater investment is needed to tackle obstacles to breastfeeding.

Scaling up breastfeeding interventions is a proven, cost-effective way to improve the health and well-being of moms and babies, with every $1 invested yielding approximately $35 in economic gains.

Countries that fail to invest in breastfeeding lose billions of dollars to lower economic productivity and higher health costs. Alive & Thrive’s Cost of Not Breastfeeding tool demonstrates just how important breastfeeding is to a healthy society. According to the tool, nearly 600,000 children and nearly 100,000 women die each year across the globe due to inadequate breastfeeding; together, these preventable deaths and the cognitive losses and burdens on our health system that stem from low breastfeeding rates result in global economic losses of more than $340 billion annually.

Breastfeeding and COVID-19

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts are underway to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding. Programs around the world are finding creative solutions to ensure women are able to continue breastfeeding their children safely without disruption. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Suaahara project in Nepal adapted to the pandemic by providing phone counseling on breastfeeding to more than 300,000 mothers as well as socially-distanced breastfeeding counseling. But greater efforts will be needed to implement best-practices for supporting breastfeeding in our virtual world.

This year, as the global development community builds back from the pandemic and looks to the future of food systems, we must prioritize protecting nature’s perfect food system. The Nutrition for Growth Year of Action offers multiple opportunities for stakeholders to announce pledges, commitments, and solutions to tackle malnutrition leading up to the N4G Summit in December. Now is the time for greater action to ensure equitable access to breastfeeding across the globe. The health of mothers, children, and their societies depends on it.

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Carol Dreibelbis

    Carol Dreibelbis is a U.S. policy and research analyst at 1,000 Days, an initiative of FHI Solutions, where she works to improve the health and well-being of mothers and babies. Before joining 1,000 Days in 2018, Dreibelbis led evidence-review projects in service of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
  • Blythe Thomas

    Blythe Thomas is the initiative director at 1,000 Days where she leads the charge to make the health and well-being of mothers and babies a policy and funding priority. Prior to 1,000 Days, Thomas held leadership roles at the Partnership for a Healthier America, the Kansas Health Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and the American Red Cross.
  • Sandy Remancus

    Sandy Remancus has 30 years of experience in nutrition, food security, and program management. Remancus is the director of Alive & Thrive, an FHI Solutions initiative. Previously, she served as the FANTA project director and worked in West Africa on a USAID-funded family health and AIDS project and with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.