Breastmilk has been on my mind more than ever.

It’s not just because of the formula shortage we’re experiencing in the US, but especially because I’m a new mom (second time around), and I’m choosing to breastfeed my son Milo, who is three months old. In the best of circumstances, this can be a big challenge for a new mom, and it is for me. Each day, I need to pump every three hours so Milo has enough to eat for the next day. This requires scheduling gymnastics at work, either pausing several times throughout the day or even taking meetings with my camera off and a mechanical pump buzzing in the background. If I skip pumping or my milk supply is low, I must rely on formula to supplement my milk. It’s aconstant stress for me, to put it mildly.

As challenging as this can be in normal times, circumstances these days are far worse than normal: the U.S. is suffering a critical shortage of baby formula caused by pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions and contamination at one of the nation’s biggest baby formula plants. The problem is so serious that President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to increase formula production and deployed military planes to bring formula from abroad.

I am incredibly sympathetic to the many mothers who are unable or choose not to breastfeed or simply want the security of having formula on hand in these desperate times. When it comes to milk for our babies, there’s no perfect alternative for mother’s breast milk — at least not yet. I’m super excited about all the innovation in improving formula to make it more like the “original” and love what is being done by our friends at BioMilq, TurtleTree, Helaina, and Bobbie. Until recently, it’s been difficult to decipher the components of breastmilk and their impact on our gut microbiome, brain development, and nutrition, not to mention recreate these magical components ex vivo. Not only is a base formulation hard to do well, but natural breast milk also changes from mother to mother and even from one feeding to the next, providing infants with a dynamic food source specifically tailored to their immediate, individual needs. The complexity of formula is not to be underestimated, and regulators heavily control these products for good reason.

Baby formula is just one example where COVID has exposed the vulnerability of our food supply chains. School lunch programs, food banks, and food-insecure households are all struggling as grocery store shelves empty and food prices soar by almost one-third. And COVID isn’t the only factor threatening our food security. Today, the world watches helplessly as the war in Ukraine is accelerating a years-long food crisis for millions of people, while a heat wave in India has pushed wheat prices to record highs.

Usually, when we talk about alternative proteins, we’re referring to sustainable, animal-free alternatives to other protein-based foods derived from animals on the market, whether it’s an egg, a burger, or a scoop of ice cream. In the context of infant formula, innovators are rethinking not only core ingredients but also leveraging new methods of producing those ingredients, including precision fermentation (Helaina), cell culture (BioMilq and TurtleTree), and sourcing more natural and organic ingredients (Bobbie).

At Shiru, we understand the challenge well as we leverage precision fermentation to reliably supply a wide range of protein ingredients to support a sustainable food future. I love the prospect of applying Shiru’s unique approach to developing better protein ingredients for mother’s milk: at Shiru we’ve built the data, machine learning tools, and screening capabilities to discover better ingredients among the billions of proteins in nature’s library, enabling us to better mimic the nutrition and functionality of native mother’s milk.

It’s hard to envision a better solution than natural breastmilk, and it’s clear to me how urgently we need alternatives for infant formula ingredient that provide nutritious, sustainable, safe, and reliable nutrition to our most precious and vulnerable population. The forces behind our current formula shortage aren’t going away, meaning alternative proteins can no longer be alternatives and must become mainstream across the board.

I have acquired a small stash of formula that I came across on a near-empty store shelf recently, which allows me to rest a little easier on the days life gets busy and I can’t make as much milk as I hope to. The deeply personal experience of producing milk for my son during a formula shortage has upped my level of commitment and sense of urgency to provide more sustainable ingredients to the entire food industry — big things are on the horizon at Shiru.

Additional resources:

  1. Information for Families During the Formula Shortage |
  2. With the baby formula shortage, what should I do if I can’t find any? |
  3. America Is Grappling With a Baby Formula Shortage. Here’s How to Navigate It. | New York Times