What's with all the Milk??
Breakdown of the environmental impacts of the dairy industry and the most sustainable dairy alternatives.
I thought this would be a good follow on from last weeks article on veganism in COVID-19. If you haven’t read that yet. Click here.
Theres now an abundance of plant-based milks out there and if you are only just starting to explore the plant-based world, I am sure you might feel a bit overwhelmed. I know I am not alone when I say that growing up, I was programmed to think that we drink one kind of milk and it makes your bones strong. And now, well there’s soya, hemp, oat, rice, quinoa, coconut, almond, spelt, the list goes on!
Here’s a run down of the environmental impacts of the dairy industry and plant-based milk.
The problems with dairy production
For years we didn’t question cow’s milk, the industry sold it to us an essential part of our diet, we need it for calcium – right?! It’s strange how times have changed, it was the norm for me to have a glass of milk with dinner and now, well I couldn’t think of anything worse.
The issues with ‘normal’ milk span from animal rights, to health and environmental concerns, for me it was the environmental consequences which made me decide to ditch the dairy. So that will be the focus.
Just to throw a quick curveball, I am going to first praise the dairy industry; since 2009 the dairy industry have worked with the Carbon Trust to implement a new ‘greener initiative’ and developed a new guide for measuring and reporting on the carbon footprint of dairy products. Within this initiative the dairy industry made a claim that they wanted to cut milk related emissions by 25% by 2020.
I struggled to find recent stats on the progress towards this goal, I do know however that in general they are heaps more sustainable, or at least are aware of the industries sustainability or lack of, which are certainly good points. In by 2015 the emissions intensity so how many emissions they produce for one unit has reduced by almost 11% to 2.5kg CO2 equivalents per Kg of product produced. I cannot deny the efficiency increase which is occurring in dairy production and the sustainability increase which I know will continue to increase.
But back to reality, despite these positive steps the green house gases produced by agriculture continue to rise and largely this is down to the sheer amount produced. In 2018, 843M tonnes of milk was produced! And production continues to grow with estimates suggesting that the amount of milk produced will grow again by at least 1% during 2020. The high consumption of high carbon products is now becoming more and more recognised and it has been proposed that a reduction in consumption of at least 20% per person by 2050 of beef, lamb and dairy – the most carbon intensive foods is severely needed. A statement which has been far overdue.
And of course, it’s not all about emissions; theres also the water, fertilizer, pesticides and land which are required to grow the crops to feed the cows. And that’s without even mentioning the fact that agriculture accounts for 88% of ammonia emissions, a figure which damages the governments clean air strategy.
Furthermore, this environmental destruction doesn’t even provide us with a product we need!
The fact of the matter is we don’t need milk to be healthy, and in honesty it’s much more likely to be detrimental to health. We are the only animal which choose to drink the milk from another animal and even continue this into adulthood. Lactose intolerance, and allergies to cow milk protein are common issues – in east Asia more than 90% of communities are lactose intolerant.
Dairy consumption raises a bunch of health concerns such as cancer, heart disease, hormones, and contaminants. And just think about the amount of antibiotics you consume through cows’ milk just because of the sheer amount of medications farmers must give cows to stay healthy, cause simply, it’s not natural. That will lead me on to a whole bunch of animal rights issues which I am not getting into it. Sorry that ended all being a bit long-winded, let’s move on.
So, if you can’t drink dairy what else can you drink? I am going to cover the 5 most popular dairy alternatives.
On the outside almond milk seems like a great choice; almonds are super healthy, high in healthy fats, fibres, vitamins and minerals. Plus eating almonds are linked to weight loss and have been associated with lowered risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s and several others.
But, it takes 5 litres of water too grow one almond, and the demand for almond milk has risen significantly in past years which means almond orchards are continuing to be planted. That’s a predicted 130 pints of water for just one glass of almond milk, the sourcing of that water is itself causing a heap of issues. That is the highest water consumption of all dairy alternatives, for comparison cow’s milk takes about 100 litres of water to produce 100ml of milk, so almonds are still better in that sense. To put yet another spin on it almond are farmed primarily in California, so that means there’s a heap of impact on one region, where the impact of cows are spread globally, because they are like, everywhere!
More worrying than almonds thirsty nature, the production of them are harming honeybees in a pretty big way, we have heard a lot about honeybees recently and we know they are species already under threat.
Almond trees need pollinating, but this means bringing a load of hives to California every year – 1.6M to be exact. One thing I didn’t mention was the staggering amount of insecticides used in the region, so then we can understand why bringing so many bees into a heavily insecticide area might be catastrophic! Because of this, almond orchards are responsible for culling a large number of bees, which certainly isnt the environmental picture I want to be supporting. I will mention that there are now guidelines in California regarding chemical use, so this should be an area which is improving.
Exotic and Healthy or environmentally devastating?
I love coconut products, and I am not alone. There are huge demands for coconut products and coconut milk in the Western world. Unfortunately, this demand is causing less efficient farming, heavier use of chemicals and more land which is turned into a un biodiverse monocultured landscape. Impacting the normal tropical forest landscape where coconuts grow. Monocultures will I think will be a topic I talk about another time, as I could talk forever about biodiversity and monocultures, I will restrain.
And then theres the transportation costs of carrying huge amounts of coconuts from Asia, I can’t really stop drinking cow’s milk due to emissions and then support the fossil fuel input it takes to drink coconut milk, can I?
Soy was well in trend before the likes of almond and coconut milk came into fashion, and it is the only plant-based milk which comes close to offering a protein content comparable to dairy. But more recently it’s been trendier to expose the environmental impact of soy, upsetting vegans and vegetarians far and wide.
The production of soybeans is linked to deforestation, it takes up a lot of land turning it once again into unsustainable monocultures and unfortunately the demand and thus production continues to grow. The effects of all mass-produced crops on the landscape are undeniable, and It is for primarily this reason that I decided to stop using soy milk. This I am sure paint’s a negative picture of soy and soy milk. But, of the huge amounts of imported soya to the EU, 90% of this is used for animal feed. So, think about how much more sustainable it will be to grow products to consume directly, rather than growing tons of crops for animal feed and then using more land and resources to raise the animals. Another valid reason why dairy and meat production need to be reduced.
The benefit of soy is that is has been around for a while and there is a Round Table on Responsible Soya Association in place – much like the RSPO for palm oil, and they aim to address such environmental concerns. Also, you can easily find organic soy milk which is grown much more sustainably elsewhere in the world.
I LOVE oat milk, it stands a firm favourite of mine, and no less because of the impact the production causes – or lack of. It grows in milder climates and thus not linked to the deforestation in tropical climates, plus there is already more than enough oats to go around. Like with soy up to 90% of oat production goes directly into animal feed, so I feel we can safely steal some of this away for our own consumption.
Oat for me is largely guilt-free, but again the downside is that yet again oats normally come from mass produced, monoculture operations, and the use of pesticides is often high. Fortunately, even as oat milk booms, further environmental impacts of increased production are not suspected.
If you are a fan of the infamous Oatly (I definitely am), then they claim that their oats are certified glyphosate free –a likely component in intensive pesticide environments, another huge plus for supporting Oatly.
Do oats’ have a new contender?!
Hemp has been around forever and has been greatly valued for its renewability and it’s wide variety of uses, today a whole host of environmental benefits are being realised. Hemp is from the same family as marijuana and because of this the use and benefits have often been mistaken or banned. Like in the US growing hemp was banned till 2018, a change which I suspect to have really increased the momentum of hemp products. In contrast, for us in the UK hemp has continued to be legally farmed and despite confusing laws around this the UK CBD industry is booming.
Despite controversy hemp is inherently sustainable, it can be used for a wide range of products and makes a healthy base for a milk rich in protein and healthy fats.
Hemp is naturally resistant to pests, which means it trumps crops like soya beans and oats as it doesn’t have the detrimental effect on the environement caused by pesticides. Hemp also is less water intensive and requires less land to grow, plus it’s really hardy and will flourish in many different climates and soil types.
I only got into using hemp milk as my dairy alternative fairly recently, but so far, I am loving it. It provides me with a guilt-free tea much like Oat milk does, but the benefits to the environment are so much greater! There is a real heap of benefits which you can get from hemp, including how it can be used to make bioplastic. But again, I think this is best suited to be its own topic – maybe I will call it ‘Lets save the world with Hemp’ or something like that.
Whilst I don’t think it’s truly possible to draw to a clear conclusion of which plant-based milk is the most sustainable or environmentally friendly, at least not without a ton of research into stats and figures, any dairy alternative is better than cows milk.
Even the most unsustainable plant-based milk is better than the most sustainably made cow’s milk.
I tend to stick to Oat and Hemp as for me they hold the least amount of ‘eco-guilt’, but even if you only just deciding to reduce your dairy intake you are addressing the largest part of environmental impact. At the end of the day you must decide on what is the most appealing option to you, sometimes we need to not sweat the small stuff. The amount of environmental impact caused by the production of dairy alternatives do not stack up to cause the amount of impact that the dairy industry has on the planet.
Also remember you can avoid supporting unsustainable practices by choosing certified fair trade or organic where you can