Next time you go to the grocery store and reach for that gallon of whole milk, maybe instead, for the sake of the environment, consider switching things up and choosing soy, oat or even, if you can find it, hemp. Milk.
Dairy farming is something of an environmental nightmare. Cows are among the biggest agricultural contributors to climate change and water pollution. Each year, the average cow spews about 220 pounds of methane, a greenhouse gas that, while much more ephemeral than carbon dioxide, is about 28 times more potent at warming the atmosphere. Also, as manure decomposes, it releases more methane, as well as pollutants like ammonia. Dairy also requires more than 12 times more land per unit produced than oat milk and uses 23 times more fresh water than soy. According to the WWF, 144 gallons of water are needed to produce one gallon of milk in the United States, almost all of which is used to produce livestock feed.
It is true that millions of people around the world love cow’s milk; milk is a rich source of protein; the cows are nice. And, at least in the United States, the dairy industry has significantly reduced its environmental footprint over the past few decades, primarily by reducing cow numbers while increasing yield, among other measures.
Fortunately, vegetable milks are appearing more and more in the dairy case. According to the 2021 State of the Plant-Based Industry Report, produced by the Good Food Institute (GFI), sales of plant-based milk in the United States increased by 4% last year to reach $2.6 billion. And although some of these milks score better than others in terms of environmental impacts, even those that require the most land and consume the most water do as well or better than dairy, says Priera Panescu from GFI. “Overall, plant milks are undeniably the eco-friendly choice,” she says.
But which is less harmful? From a purely environmental point of view, different milks have their own strengths and weaknesses. We’ll take a look.
Advantages: The most popular plant-based dairy alternative, almond milk has one of the lowest greenhouse gas contributions per unit of milk. It is lower than that of oats, rice, or soybeans, largely because almond orchards capture and store carbon above and below ground in root systems. Additionally, according to a 2015 study, using almond co-products — such as orchard biomass, husks, and shells — as fuel and animal feed could make almonds carbon neutral or even carbon negative.
The inconvenients: The cultivation of almond trees requires a lot of water. According to one study, it takes three gallons to grow a single California almond. Additionally, 80% of the world’s almond supply is grown in California, where water is scarce and droughts have become a way of life.
Pollination of almond trees is also a growing struggle; an estimated 70 percent of all commercial bees in the United States are needed for this. Still, more and more bees are dying, it is thought, because overwork makes them more susceptible to exposure to pesticides and parasites.
Advantages: The amount of water used in the production of coconut milk compares extremely favorably to almost all other options. The greenhouse gas contributions of plantations are also negligible, since coconut trees store carbon, like all plants.
The inconvenients: Coconuts are sometimes grown in a single crop, called monoculture, which can harm biodiversity and soil quality. The growing demand for coconuts would lead to deforestation in some areas. Because coconuts are grown in tropical areas, mainly in Indonesia, shipping coconut products uses a lot of fossil fuels. There are also labor and even animal welfare issues in coconut harvesting in some areas. Check fair trade labels on coconut products.
Advantages: Oat milk scores well across the board. A study (although commissioned by industry) found that compared to dairy products, it is responsible for 80% less greenhouse gas emissions, 80% less land use and 60% less energy. It also uses around 18% of the fresh water requirements of rice, 13% of almonds and only 7.5% of dairy products.
The inconvenients: Most oat cultivation is large-scale monoculture, although most of it is for livestock feed rather than milk. A 2018 report by the Environmental Task Force found the pesticide glyphosate in all tested foods containing oats, the result of farmers spraying oats with Roundup before harvest. However, Oatly, the largest producer of oat milk products, says its supplier does not use glyphosate.
Advantages: Rice milk requires less land than soy or almond milk, and much less than dairy products.
The inconvenients: Its production uses almost as much water as almond milk, and its greenhouse gas emissions exceed anything but milk, largely because the bacteria growing in the rice paddies emit a lot of methane. Some rice milks can also contain arsenic, and fertilizers used to grow rice can pollute waterways.
Advantages: The greenhouse gas emissions of soy are comparable to those of almond milk, but it uses barely a tenth of the water that almonds need. Dora Marinova, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Western Australia, notes that “soy has been called a ‘miracle plant’ because it contains all the essential amino acids humans need and because it also helps to soil nitrogen fixation. Soybeans, like other legumes, take nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into compounds that can be used by animal and plant life.
The inconvenientsBy far the biggest problem with soybeans is its space requirements, especially where some of that land is: land clearing for soybean production contributes to deforestation in the Amazon. A study found that one liter of soy milk requires about one square mile of land.
However, Panescu points out, “when we consider soy as a culprit in the monoculture of deforestation, we must remember that a huge amount is destined for animal feed, not for milk production. About 14 calories fed to cows produces about one calorie of milk that we can consume. So instead of going to the cow, we can use those calories directly for human consumption” with plant milks.
Other plants potentially offer even greater benefits. Hazelnut milk requires less water than almond because the nuts are grown in areas with high rainfall and are pollinated by the wind, not by bees. Peas also grow in humid climates and, like soybeans, fix nitrogen in the soil. Pea milk is, like soy, high in protein.
And then there is hemp. The environmental benefits of hemp milk are such as Marinova and her colleague Diana Bogueva called it a game changer. Hemp needs more water than soy but less than almonds and dairy; its deep roots improve the structure of the soil; and the plant creates shade, limiting weed growth and avoiding the need for fertilizer. Plus, the parts of the plant that don’t go into milk can be used for all sorts of uses, from fabric to paper to alternatives to plastic.
SO: WHICH IS BEST?
The choice, ultimately, is yours. But, points out Panescu: “If we can use even less water-intensive crops like soybeans and oats, that could have even more positive environmental benefits. So I really think soy and oats stand out from an environmental perspective, along with hemp and other choices that add value to the whole crop and greatly reduce food waste.
“Overall, plant-based milks are much better than cow’s milk.”
BUT WAIT! THERE IS MORE
The choices don’t necessarily end there. What if you want the environmental benefits of plant-based milks, but prefer not to give up the taste and nutritional profile of dairy products? Marinova notes that researchers are making progress with lab-grown milk. However, she says, “for lab-grown milk to be truly sustainable with a lower carbon footprint, it should be produced using only renewable energy sources and its water footprint should decrease.”
Meanwhile, a company called Nobel Foods has developed a strain of soybeans that can produce casein, which is the main protein in cow’s milk. Potentially, we may not ultimately be faced with a hard choice at all, says Panescu.
“If this is successful, we could enjoy plant milks that have exactly the same nutritional properties and texture as cow’s milk,” she says. “And I really want to be in a world where we can grow the products that we love in human ways across cultures and do it in a way that’s planetary healthy and healthy for us.”
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