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 labour 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 flavour 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 litres per almond!) and the hard labour 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.
Oat milk is an especially good choice for Canadians as oats grow well in Canada, meaning that oats aren’t usually associated with deforestation and some locally made oat milk is available. 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.
Soy milk – joint winner!
Soy offers the closest protein profile to cow’s milk, but is far more sustainable, making it the go-to plant-based milk for anyone concerned with health and the environment. This is according to the 2018 Oxford study.
For a while, soy fell out of favour, partly based on misguided ideas about hormonal effects in males. Meta-analyses have, however, found “no effects of soy protein or isoflavone intake on testosterone, sex hormone-binding globulin, free testosterone, or the free androgen index.”
The other concern often raised over soy is its contribution to deforestation. The truth is that, yes, there has been rampant deforestation in the Amazon related to soy farms, but the soybeans grown on those farms are almost exclusively fed to, you guessed it, cows. Indeed, “80% of Amazon soy is destined for animal feed,” according to the Yale School of the Environment. So, if you’re looking for sustainably sourced soy milk, choose organic soy made from beans grown in the US or Canada. And, of course, cut out the beef and dairy!
In summary, whichever milk you consume in lieu of dairy is going to be better in terms of sustainability. Kicking the cow’s milk habit is by far the best way to address most of the environmental impact of milk consumption. If you live in Canada, oat, soy, and hemp are arguably your best options, while those living in more tropical climates might want to favour organically, sustainably sourced coconut milk.
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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