As the climate crisis continues to loom, ever more threateningly, ahead of us, many have chosen to make more planet-friendly lifestyle choices. For some, that means spending more time sorting the recycling. For others, it means adopting a plant-based diet. The latter has become increasingly easy to do, too. Options for everything from vegan bacon, ribs and burgers, to milk and cheese line supermarket aisles and cafe menus. The abundance of choice can lead us to another conundrum, though. Which of the plant-based choices before us are actually better for the planet? When it comes to milk in particular, we’re spoilt for choice. Here’s what to consider when picking your favourite plant-based milk, according to science.
What kinds of plant-based milks are available?
We’ve reached the point where it seems like one can make “milk” out of just about anything. Supermarkets today will always stock a soy alternative, and most likely an almond milk too. Depending on where you shop, you may also come across oat milk, macadamia milk, rice milk, and coconut milk – even flax seed and walnut milks!.
How does plant-based milk compare to dairy milk?
First, some good news: ANY plant-based milk you buy, whether it’s made from nuts, seeds, or beans, is better for the planet than dairy milk. This is because their production requires less land and water. This is pointed out by all available studies.
According to one 2018 study, producing dairy milk releases approximately three times more greenhouse emissions than producing plant-based milks. It also requires a whopping nine times more land than any of the vegan alternatives. If that isn’t intense enough, according to Diana Bogueva and Dora Marinova, producing cow’s milk uses way more water too. “628 Litres of water are used to produce every litre of dairy, compared to 371 for almond, 270 for rice, 48 for oat and 28 for soy milk,” they write.
Part of the reason plant-based milk is so much more eco-friendly is because, unlike cows, trees don’t need to move around, and they have the added benefit of being able to absorb carbon as they grow. They also produce useful woody biomass at the end of their lives.
But while plant-based alternatives are miles better for the planet, it doesn’t mean they have zero environmental impact.
How do plant-based milks affect the environment?
This is a tough one to answer, as it varies according to each kind of milk.
According to Bogueva and Marinova, “compared to other plant-based options, almond milk’s water use is much higher and largely depends on freshwater irrigation. One kernel of California almond requires 12 liters of water, which raises serious sustainability questions about industrial almond production in water-scarce areas.”
Furthermore, in the US anyway, its production is harmful to bees. Beekeepers deliberately transport hives of bees to almond trees, which require cross-pollination. This puts them at risk of encountering dangerous pesticides.
The environmental performance of coconut milk looks somewhat better. This is because coconut trees use far less water than dairy milk production, and they, of course, absorb carbon dioxide. However, the trees are limited to tropical climates, which means as farmers plant more coconut trees, they encroach further and further into wildlife habitats. In addition, the pressure to meet global demand for coconuts has some farmers employing questionable labour practices – and even forms of animal cruelty – to keep up.
Hazelnut milk seems to be a winner in the nut-milk category. Hazelnut trees are cross-pollinated by wind, rather than bees. Better for the environment, the bees and the beekeepers! Hazelnuts also grow in areas with higher rainfall in Southern Europe and North America, so they require significantly less irrigated water than almond trees do.
When it comes to legume milks, although soy milk is very eco-friendly in terms of water use. Producing a gallon of oat milk requires around 180 gallons of water, while creating the equivalent amount of soy milk requires around 106 gallons. It’s also greener when it comes to carbon emissions. Bogueva and Marinova cite another problem, however. “As the demand for soy grows, deforestation and displacement of small farmers are becoming growing problems.
According to The Beet, “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 grown in the US or Canada”.
Hemp milk is rarer, but it’s an excellent contender. The plant has multiple uses, so nothing goes to waste. Hemp cultivation demands less water than almond, and its roots grow deep, improving the soil structure and reducing the presence of fungi. it’s a hardy and pest-resistant plant, and it creates weed-suppressing shade. This means fewer herbicides and pesticides are needed. It can also be grown in a variety of different conditions.
Let’s not even discuss rice milk, as it’s probably the least eco-friendly plant-based milk you can find. Never mind the fact that it has been found to include harmful levels of arsenic.
Oat milk makes the list of winners when it comes to land, however. According to GlobalCitizen.org, “because oats can be grown in the cooler months as a cover crop they can help restore nutrients to the soil during the off-season while also increasing local biodiversity”.
How do I choose the right plant-based milk?
Apart from availability and personal preference, Bogueva and Marinova have a few more suggestions about how to pick your vegan milk.
Firstly, organic versions will always be better for the planet. Fewer chemicals are used in their production and they put less pressure on the soil. Next, keep in mind the additives. Everything added to your milk has its own environmental footprint that needs to be taken into account. Try to buy products that come in recyclable packaging. Once you’ve opened it, try not to waste any of it by letting it expire and pouring it down the drain.
Last, but not least, They recommend diversifying your milks. “Shifting to only one plant-based option — even if it’s more environmentally-friendly than dairy milk,” they write, “means the market demand can become overexploited and have downstream consequences”. One way you can start doing this is by buying one kind of milk one week, and another the next.
Switching to plant-based milk is a delicious way to immediately cut back on your carbon footprint. With all the options at our fingertips, there’s no need to feel deprived if you no longer add that splash of cow’s milk to your coffee.
Each of these alternatives comes with pros and cons. The main takeaway, though, is that, no matter which you choose, you’ll still be doing the planet more favours than if you were consuming dairy milk. So well done to you!