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Is lab-grown breast milk the future of feeding?

August 4, 2023
New mothers are always given the same idiom when it comes to feeding their baby: breast is best. Yet breastfeeding rates in the UK are low, and many rely on formula feeding. Could milk grown from mammary cells in a lab be an eco-friendly alternative?

At a press conference in 2013, Mark Post changed the way we produce meat forever.

As a chef cooked a perfectly round, pink patty with a little butter, Post – a Professor of Vascular Physiology – explained how he’d created the burger not from slaughtered meat, but thousands of culture plates filled with bovine stem cells. He mixed them with fetal calf serum and nutrients, and waited until they turned into strips of muscle. Served with a bun and side salad, this was the first lab-grown beef.

It didn’t take long for other eco-conscious start-ups flush with cash to create cultured seafood, lamb, cruelty-free fois gras and more. But recently, the labs have turned their attention to a different kind of agriculture: breast milk.

What is lab-grown breast milk?

Biomilq was created by Cell Biologist Dr Leila Strickland, who struggled to breastfeed her son in the first three months of his life. Emboldened by Post's cultured offering, her start-up aims to create human breastmilk without an actual human being involved. It cultivates breast cells in a lab and collects the milk it secretes. It’s thought that if successful, Biomilq could stop the formula industry in its tracks.

The WHO recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months. In the UK, the percentage of women following this recommendation sits at 1%.

Formula feeding is often thought of as an alternative for those who struggle to or cannot produce breast milk. But far more women are adopting this method than expected. The World Health Organisation recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of a newborn’s life. But in the UK, the percentage of women following this recommendation currently sits at around 1%.

This isn’t a desired outcome for new mothers – in fact, eight out of 10 women stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to. Unicef cite the reasons for this predominantly as a lack of access to support services, both in the community and at work, as well as cultural barriers and misinformation.

What are the current breast milk alternatives?

Breastfeeding has long been influenced by social status. From ancient Greece to the American Civil War era, wet nursing forced slaves to breastfeed their enslavers’ child, which was often to the detriment of their own children. In the 20th Century, formula feeding flourished: advertising fed on the dichotomous insecurities of the modern mid-century woman: those desperate to join the workforce and those keen to uphold the baby boom post-war. It created a breastfeeding nadir.

Despite the recent prominence of milk banks, breast milk’s leading rival has always been formula. But the benefits are low. Most infant formula is made with cow’s milk. Human milk contains hormones, antibodies and friendly bacteria that helps babies grow, whereas cow’s milk contains proteins and sugars suited to feed calves. Although rare, these sugars can be detrimental to a child’s health; an intolerance to cow’s milk can occur in around 7% of babies.

The environmental impact is also intense. The carbon footprint of formula is significant – around 4kg of greenhouse gases to every 1kg of milk formula produced – and its contents often rely on dairy farming or palm oil.

Could lab-grown milk replace breastfeeding?

Lab-grown milk has the potential to be far more efficient than formula. But it can’t replicate breast milk exactly. “The complex processes the act of breastfeeding your baby initiates and the immunity it maintains is impossible to replicate artificially,” says Shami Shafi, Infant Feeding Lead at Midlands Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (UNICEF Baby Friendly Gold Accredited), whose priorities are to protect and promote breastfeeding .

“This is partly because of the specificity and responsiveness of the mother’s body to the suckling infant. The process can vary down to each individual feed, and each mother and baby dyad, changing and responding as the baby feeds, grows and develops.”

“The complex processes the act of breastfeeding your baby initiates and the immunity it maintains is impossible to replicate artificially.” 

- Shami Shafi, Infant Feeding Lead at Midlands Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust

Nursing is not only considered the gold standard in infant nutrition, but also has myriad health benefits. “Breastfeeding not only benefits the infant but also protects mothers from breast and ovarian cancers and heart disease,” Shami explains. “The processes that leads to these health benefits for the mother cannot be replicated outside of the human body.”

And the benefits are not just physical: “Evidence suggests that although the link between post-partum mental health and breastfeeding is not clearly understood, breastfeeding does in fact support the mother-baby relationship and protects the mental health of both through complex processes within the body and mind. Again, it cannot be replicated by artificial milk synthesis in a lab.”

So, is lab-grown milk the future?

Lab milk promises to be nutritional, but not immunological, lacking the antibodies of the real McCoy. These factors mean it couldn’t be used alone, but it could be considered as a supplement. It has the potential to help, for example, working women who can’t breastfeed while at work, or are not provided a place to pump at the office, and rely intermittently on formula. It could be liberating for marginalised women, who are often forced to return to work earlier.

It’ll likely be a long time before lab-grown milk is readily available. But its mere existence demonstrates an acknowledgement of the pragmatic decisions parents today must make to feed their children. It accepts the realities of the world we live in, empowering all kinds of parents to make decisions that could benefit their family, and the planet. It might not replicate human breast milk, but it has the potential to blow formula out the water.