I’m scratching my head at the news about a product that is supposed to be a great advance. It makes no sense to me. The product is artificial breast milk, grown in vitro from mammary cells.
It’s not plant or bovine based. Apparently, it more closely mimics human breast milk. (Formula companies have a similar promotion: ‘The next best thing to mother’s milk.’) It does not provide the complex immunological benefits of human breast milk. A few companies are developing artificial breast milks made from mammary cells.
Michelle Egger and Leila Strickland are scientists and co-founders of a company that is developing a product called BioMilq. As I read interviews with them, several questions arose. Ms. Egger described what motivated her to work on this project. “I realized that even the Gates Foundation, working with the largest multinationals in the world, couldn’t move fast enough… For every year or two that it took us longer to try to get a project moving, millions of children around the globe were falling behind.” The article goes on to say “Egger knew breast milk was the answer to setting every person on the right nutritional path, but it was also the problem. A new alternative to breast milk was needed.”
Wait, what is the problem? We agree that breast milk is the answer.
What about supporting the real women who are already making this? Women have many reasons for low or no milk supply. Let’s start with access to good nutrition… or basic health care. Start now, for growing children, teens, pregnant and lactating mothers. Healthier children are healthier adults who can grow healthier children. In addition, the physical process of lactation, making milk, benefits the mother’s long-term health. Good nutrition is one social determinant of good health… what kind of support is the breastfeeding person receiving? These are aspects that literally generate better health for longer term. That can make an enduring difference.
Indeed, it’s an issue of shared resources. The issue isn’t a ‘need’ for a new product. There are so many ways to support breastfeeding.In doing so, you are promoting the health of the child, the breastfeeding parent and the planet.
I understand the agony for mothers who are unable to breastfeed, the distress of not being able to provide breast milk. For the more immediate moment, how about more human milk sharing? Here in North America, there is a system of 31 human milk banks. These are medical non-profits that provide Pasteurized Donor Human Milk (PDHM) and have an established record of success. (There are milk banks around the world.)
As of 2020, BioMilq had raised at least $3.5 million. Imagine how that kind of funding could boost the medical non-profit Human Milk Banks. How about creative ways to organize milk depots and encourage the community resource of milk sharing? Insurance coverage for the cost of PDHM, especially for low-income programs, is necessary. The immunological benefits of breast milk are crucial for preterm and sick babies.
Rather than a new product, provide effective support, provide Pasteurized Donor Human Milk.
There are other important considerations.
• Will this product use the impossible-to-recycle packages?
• Who will pick up the trash…and pay for it to be hauled away?
• Who will distribute this? We have already seen drastic problems with getting vaccines to rural areas.
• Who will have easy access to this and how much will it cost?
• Who will profit from this? Somebody is going to make money on this.
Is this really the most effective way to promote health for families?
Human breast milk is:
• Always temperature controlled •Always clean
•Easily available •Environmentally resourceful •Elegantly packaged.
• Human breast milk varies with the child’s age. Even Pasteurized Donor Human Milk is superior and specific nutrition. For example, a family with a preterm baby will receive donor milk that is specific for the preterm age.
Growing mammary cells in vitro is cool science. Possibly it can be developed for other healing therapies. But let’s be clear. Artificial human milk is so unpractical and avoids many deeper concerns.
The issue is real support for real women to provide real milk. That makes much more sense.