Ranking Milk Based on Sustainability
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the environmental impact of almond milk, leading a few folks to switch to dairy or other plant-based milks. Is the concern over almond production hyperbolic or based on fact? And is dairy really as bad for the planet (not to mention cows) as it seems? Here are the different types of dairy and plant-based milks ranked from least sustainable to most sustainable.
Least sustainable – cow’s milk/dairy
No big surprise here. A glass of cow’s milk is responsible for almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, UK. Dairy also requires nine times more land than any plant-based milk, which makes sense when you think that land often has to be cleared to grow the plant crops that feed the cows, in addition to land used to house the cows as they excrete methane (a greenhouse gas).
Coconut milk – an environmental nightmare
Coconut milk has become more popular in the last couple of years, but 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. To grow more and more coconuts, palm plantations are being extended at breakneck speed, resulting in massive deforestation (which is bad for biodiversity and disastrous for climate change). The labor conditions on coconut palm groves are also often very poor, with workers exploited for little pay. 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.
If you do buy coconut milk, check that it’s Fair Trade and comes from a sustainable source that is not associated with deforestation. Consider buying concentrated coconut products packaged at source, which helps keep cash in the local economy, and reduces transport emissions.
Rice milk – little nutrition and not the best for water and emissions
I’ve never been a fan of rice milk, mainly because I think it lacks flavor and nutrition. The Oxford study shows that rice milk is also one of the worst offenders for greenhouse gas emissions, producing more than any other plant milk studied, in addition to being a water hog. Those rice paddies might look idyllic, but they’re teeming with methane-producing bacteria and are often heavily polluted with fertilizers.
Rice milk is widely available and inexpensive, though, and is still better than dairy in terms of the environmental impact. You can minimize the negatives of rice milk by choosing organic varieties produced in a sustainable way.
Almond milk – bad for bees, water hungry, but better than dairy
Every plant milk has its pros and cons, but nothing has caused quite as much debate as almond milk in recent years.
Most almonds used to make almond milk are grown in California, where the industrialized almond industry relies on massive amounts of water (five liters per almond!) and the hard labor of bees.  Indeed, bees work so hard to pollinate almond trees that an investigation 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. This amounted to more than a third of commercial bee colonies in the United States.
Almond milk does, however, have the lowest associated greenhouse gas emissions of the plant milks tested in the 2018 Oxford Study, and the almond trees themselves act as carbon sinks, helping mop up carbon dioxide.
Hazelnut milk – nutritious, delicious, and locally grown!
Hazelnut trees are wind pollinated, meaning no bees are needed. They thrive on rain and sequester carbon, creating a net benefit for the climate. They also grow in the Pacific Northwest, so if that’s where you live, they’re local superstars!
Hazelnut milk also provides a decent amount of protein and healthy fats, as well as other nutrients, all without the downsides of almonds. The only problem is that hazelnut milk can be a bit costly as it isn’t widely available yet.
Hemp milk – eco friendly, but hard to find
Hemp is one of the most environmentally friendly crops in the world, actually helping remediate soil and isolate carbon. And hemp seeds are rich in protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, making for a nutritious plant-based milk. Again, the downside is that hemp milk can be hard to find and relatively expensive compared to soy milk, which has a similar protein profile.
Oat milk vs. soy milk– it’s a tie!
When it comes to environmental impact, oat milk and soy milk are both winners. 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.
Buying local helps cut greenhouse gas emissions even further, and also helps support food security. And, happily, plenty of oats are already grown worldwide; it’s just that most go towards feeding livestock such as cows. As such, switching existing global oat production to feed humans instead of cattle, might actually reduce the amount of land and other inputs needed.
The downside of oat milk is that it’s not as rich in protein as some of the other types of milk. Unfortunately, most oat milk is made with oats from monoculture operations where crops are sprayed with pesticides right before harvest, meaning that glyphosate (a recognized carcinogen) is often present in conventionally grown oats, and even in some organic oats that have been contaminated. Look for a brand that is certified glyphosate free. The growing fondness for oat milk likely means many brands will begin to certify their oats with robust third-party testing.
To further cut down transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions, you can have a go at making your own plant-based milk at home. No need to ship all that water, just ship the oats, nuts, beans, or seeds and add water at home! Remember, though, that homemade milk won’t be fortified with vitamins and minerals like store-bought milk, so you’ll want to make sure you’re getting your vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and other nutrients elsewhere.
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(2) McGivney A. “Like sending bees to war”: the deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession. [cited January 8, 2020]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
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(4) University of California, Davis. Almonds Contribute Little To Carbon Emissions. [cited July 28, 2015]. Available from: https://caes.ucdavis.edu/news/articles/2015/07/almonds-contribute-little-to-carbon-emissions
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