everyday science

sustainable wars: plant-based milk edition

Creating green habits and making eco-friendly choices can be a challenge, especially when it comes to milk and meat — take this from a former dairy products addict.

As you may have heard through the grapevine, cow’s milk turns out to be a *complete disaster*, at least from an environmental standpoint.

If dairy is hell on Earth, what about plant-based milk? There’s no silver bullet and there are definitely some drawbacks (how are my almond milk-loving girlies?)… but we have good news.

Here comes the science, data, and evidence — what plant-based milk is the absolute eco-friendly winner?


DAIRY / biggest environmental footprint, by far

Any plant-based milk, be it made from beans, nuts, or seeds, has a lighter impact than dairy when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the use of water and land. Available studies, including systematic reviews, categorically point out that, in one word, dairy is a disaster.

A 2018 Oxford study estimates dairy to be around three times more greenhouse gas emission-intensive than any plant-based milk. Not only do nut kinds of milk generally require smaller land areas, the trees they grow on absorb carbon and, at the end of their life, produce useful woody biomass.

There’s a thing called global warming potential, measured as a kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per liter of milk produced. Cow’s milk global warming potential is huge — varying between 1.14 in Australia and New Zealand to 2.50 in Africa.

Comparing this to most plant-based milk will give you an idea of why you should consider avoiding dairy in the future.

On average, the global warming potential of now infamous almond and coconut milk is 0.42 and 0.75 for soy milk.

What’s more, dairy generally requires nine times more land than any of the plant-based alternatives. Every liter of cow’s milk uses 8.9 square meters per year, compared to 0.8 for oat, 0.7 for soy, 0.5 for almond, and 0.3 for rice milk.

Water use is similarly higher for cow’s milk: 628 liters of water for every liter of dairy, compared to 371 for almond, 270 for rice, 48 for oat, and 28 for soy milk.

ALMOND MILK / water jugger, bad for bees

Almonds require more water than any other dairy alternative, consuming almost 62 liters of water to produce a single glass of almond milk, according to the Oxford study — five liters per every single almond used to make milk.

Satisfying continual demands for larger almond crops are also placing unsustainable pressures on commercial beekeepers, especially in the US. Nearly 70% of commercial bees in the US are drafted every spring with one demand — to pollinate almonds.

And then in 2019, a horror story happened. Over one-third of commercial bee colonies in the US died by season’s end as a result of these pollinating pressures alongside other environmental threats. Guardian’s investigation named ‘Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession found that the almond industry was responsible for the deaths of 50 billion bees in just a few months in the winter of 2018–19.

In other places, like Australia, almond plantations are less industrialized, so beekeepers do not experience such problems. Still, millions of bees are needed, and fires, drought, floods, smoke, and heat damage can threaten their health.

COCONUT MILK / trendy exploitation

In the last couple of years, coconut milk has become more popular. Yet, as coconuts only grow in a handful of tropical climates such as in the  Philippines, Indonesia, and India, demand has rapidly caught up to supply. Palm plantations are being extended at an uncontrollable speed, resulting in massive deforestation.

With poor labor conditions in coconut palm groves where pickers are often paid less than a dollar a day, the palm groves are no paradise.

And, of course, all that coconut milk then has to be shipped around the world, with a hefty dose of carbon emissions associated with transport.

RICE MILK / big green gas emitter and water hog

The Oxford study shows that rice milk is pretty big on greenhouse gas emissions, producing more than any other plant-based milk studied. Why? Well, mostly because of the methane-producing bacteria developing in the rice fields.

In some cases, rice milk may contain unacceptable levels of arsenic. And heavily applied fertilizers for yield boosting are polluting nearby waterways.

Although rice milk is a widely available and inexpensive dairy alternative, it offers little in the way of nutrition or environmental benefits compared with other choices.

OAT MILK / humble hero

When it comes to environmental impact, oat milk and soy milk are both winners. Oat milk performs very well on all sustainability metrics, they each use very little water, have only slightly higher greenhouse gas emissions than almond milk, and don’t have the same negative impacts on bees and cows.

Plenty of oats are already grown worldwide. As such, switching existing global oat production to feed humans instead of cattle, might actually reduce the amount of land and other inputs needed.

Oats are grown in cooler climates and are therefore not associated with deforestation in developing countries.

The only drawback with the guilt-free oat milk option is that most oats come from mass-produced, monoculture operations where they are sprayed with the Roundup pesticide right before harvest.

A study by the Environmental Working Group found a possible carcinogen (glyphosate) in all the foods it tested containing conventionally grown oats and even in one-third of products made with organic oats.

The good news is that most oat milk brands are going the extra mile to have certified glyphosate-free products.

We should also note that oat milk is that it’s not as rich in protein as some of the other types of milk, like soy.

SOY MILK / pretty much the winner, tie with oat milk

According to the Oxford study, soy milk is the joint winner on the sustainability scale.

Plus, soy is the only plant milk that comes close to offering a protein content comparable to dairy. It was the go-to alternative long before almond milk came into vogue – but then soy fell out of favor, mostly because of, now-debunked, hormone disruptor rumors.

Soy has a relatively high concentration of certain hormones that are similar to human hormones and people got freaked out about that. But the reality is you would have to consume an impossibly large amount of soy milk and tofu for that to ever be a problem.

Recent studies have found that a moderate amount of soy is healthy, especially for women.

The primary environmental drawback to soy milk is that soybeans are grown in massive quantities around the world to feed livestock for meat and dairy production. Large swaths of rainforest in the Amazon have been burned to make way for soy farms. The workaround for this is to simply do a little research and read the carton to find soy milk that is made from organic soybeans.

HAZELNUT and HEMP milk / on the rise

But, we’ll have to wait for these to be widely available and affordable.


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