So you’re thinking about ditching dairy, but you want to know more about the impact of your milk choices on the environment. Which are the most sustainable vegan milk products? And what’s the problem with dairy in the first place?
What’s the problem with dairy?
Animal agriculture has a significant impact on the environment. Back in 2018, the biggest-ever analysis of the industry to date reported that livestock constitutes just 18 percent of calories but occupies 83 percent of all farmland.
There are now approximately 1.5 billion cattle worldwide, and around 270 million of these are dairy cows. A study published in Science estimated that dairy produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) than comparable plant-based milks.
Cattle release methane into the atmosphere, which is a significant contributor to global warming and the climate crisis. The average cow produces between 160 and 320 litres every day. In general, farmed grazing animals contribute 40 percent of the worldwide annual methane budget.
The dairy industry also creates nitrous oxide via manure storage and management. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than CO2 and can remain in the atmosphere for up to 150 years. Overall, studies estimate that dairy milk has more than a kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk.
Every one litre of cow’s milk also requires 628 litres of water. In contrast, even the most thirsty plant-based milks use significantly less water than dairy. Clean water is an invaluable natural resource and basic human right that many people around the world (1 in 3) already go without.
According to Joseph Poore, the author of the 2018 analysis of animal agriculture, a vegan diet is “probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
The history of vegan milk
Much like other vegan and vegetarian foods, dishes, and ingredients, plant milk is not a modern (and certainly not a western) invention. Some of the earliest written mentions of soya milk are from 13th century China, and it appeared in national cuisine (frequently consumed hot) throughout the next several hundred years.
Soy was first introduced and cultivated in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century, and in 1910 the Chinese anarchist and educator Li Shizeng established the very first soya milk factory in Paris. Later, in the 1920s, similar factories began to appear in China and the U.S.
The tiger nut-based drink horchata has been enjoyed in Spanish-speaking countries since at least the 13th century too, and it was known in Valencia as “orxata de xufa.” In Mexico and other regions in the Americas it is made using white rice, resulting in a rice pudding-like flavor.
Almond milk originates in India, North Africa, and the Middle East, and also began to appear around the 13th century. Throughout history it has been used as an easily digestible replacement for cow’s milk, and it can also be found in English writings from the 1390s.
Coconut, in general, is a common ingredient in Southeast Asia and India, and a variety of dishes and drinks feature the distinctive ingredient. It also has a long history as a ‘replacement’ for cow’s milk, and both traditional coconut milk and modern varieties typically combine ground coconut flesh with water and sweetener.
Which are the most sustainable vegan milks?
Today, the vegan milk market continues to grow while the dairy industry declines, and there are countless varieties and brands of dairy-free milk on the market to choose from. SPINS data indicates that 13 percent of all dollar sales of retail milk are now plant-based. While 37 percent U.S. households (around 45 million) regularly purchase vegan milk.
While new, exciting, and less common plant milks include cashew, peanut, flax, millet (known in Nigeria as Kunu), pistachio, and more, we’re going to concentrate on ome of the most common and accessible dairy-free milks: almond, rice, coconut, oat, and soy.
That said, hazelnut, hemp and pea milk require at least a brief mention. These are three of the most promising up-and-coming plant-based milks in terms of sustainability, thanks primarily to their optimal nutrition and minimal environmental impact.
One of the most popular plant milks is almond. It is delicious, low in fat and calories, and high in vitamins and minerals. According to a study published by the University of Oxford and analyzed by the BBC, it also uses a relatively small quantity of land, and produces a fraction of dairy milk’s emissions.
However, one glass of almond milk requires almost 80 litres of water to produce, and growing a litre’s worth of almonds would require 371 litres of water. Overall, this is still significantly less than dairy, but certainly more than other comparable plant milks.
For this reason, growing almonds can cause problems in the surround region. In California — which produces around 80 percent of the world’s almonds — some argue the industry has exacerbated drought, as it requires approximately 10 percent of the state’s water supply.
Almond production also has a huge impact on bees, as the the nearly 7000 Californian almond farms require pollination. An investigation by The Guardian back in 2020 directly linked almond production with the deaths of billions of bees — one of the most important keystone species in the world and absolutely essential for our future survival.
Rice milk has a smooth, creamy, and sweet flavor, and is the least allergenic of all varieties of plant milk. When fortified, it can also be a good source of vitamins and minerals such as calcium. It requires less land than dairy, oat, soy, and even almond, and can be found in Korea as Sikhye and in Japan as Amazake, both popular regional and national beverages.
However, a single glass of rice milk requires 54 litres of water to produce, the third most thirsty to produce after dairy and almond milk. Rice also has a large carbon footprint, and the global rice industry — in part due to its staple status for over half the world’s population — produces methane, contributing around 2.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Coconut milk is popular for its creamy, nutty taste, and has become a welcome addition in coffee shops such as Pret in the UK, Peet’s in the U.S., and Starbucks around the world. As with rice milk, when coconut milk is fortified it can be a great source of vitamins and minerals, and the growing trees use minimal water — and absorb carbon dioxide.
But choosing Fair Trade certified coconut products is important, as the industry (which exclusively operates in tropical countries) has a history of worker exploitation and rainforest destruction. Much like palm oil, this is primarily due to an unprecedented growth in global demand.
Despite the reputation of soya as a leading cause of deforestation, the study ranked it highly for sustainability. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of soy-related deforestation happens in the production of animal feed, not dairy and meat-free ingredients for vegans and vegetarians.
Despite falling out of favor somewhat after the arrival of new plant-based milk options, soy milk can be both sustainably produced and nutritionally dense, offering comparable protein content to dairy equivalents. Many studies also show that regular soy consumption can be beneficial for health in general, specifically for women.
Soybeans can be produced in the U.S. and Canada, and North American consumers will be able to find organically grown soy milk to ensure their morning coffee is deforestation-free.
The global superstar of the plant-based milk industry is oat milk. Oatly branded products, in particular, have found their way into coffee shops around the world, from independents to Starbucks. Oats are typically grown in temperate regions such as North America and the UK, and as such are not associated with deforestation in developing countries.
According to the University of Oxford study, oat milk also uses minimal water and land, and though it creates slightly more emissions than almond milk, is more environmentally-friendly than rice, soy, and dairy. Oat milk does have a higher likelihood for gluten contamination, so it may be less suitable than other varieties for allergy sufferers.
Overall, ditching dairy is the most important thing when it comes to sustainability and milk. Choosing a plant milk that suits your budget, diet, and needs is always going to be more environmentally friendly than cow’s milk — whichever variety you choose.