Are you looking for the most sustainable vegetable milk? Read it.
So you’re thinking about giving up dairy products, but you want to know more about the impact of your milk choices on the environment. What are the most sustainable vegan dairy products? And what’s the deal with dairy in the first place?
What’s wrong with dairy products?
Animal agriculture has a significant impact on the environment. In 2018, the industry’s largest-ever analysis to date found that livestock made up just 18% of calories but took up 83% of all farmland.
There are now about 1.5 billion cattle in the world, of which about 270 million are dairy cows. A study published in Science estimated that dairy products produce three times more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than comparable vegetable milks.
Cattle release methane into the atmosphere, which contributes significantly to global warming and the climate crisis. The average cow produces between 160 and 320 liters per day. In general, farmed grazing animals contribute 40 percent of the world’s annual methane budget.
The dairy industry also creates nitrous oxide through the storage and management of manure. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than CO2 and can stay in the atmosphere for up to 150 years. Overall, studies estimate that cow’s milk contains over a kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per liter of milk.
Each liter of cow’s milk also requires 628 liters of water. On the other hand, even the thirstiest vegetable milks consume much less water than dairy products. Clean water is an invaluable natural resource and a basic human right that many people around the world (1 in 3) are already doing without.
According to Joseph Poore, author of the 2018 Animal Agriculture Analysis, a vegan diet is “Probably the most effective way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but also acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use in the world. world.”
The history of vegan milk
Much like other vegan and vegetarian foods, dishes, and ingredients, plant-based milk is not a modern (and certainly not Western) invention. Some of the earliest written references to soy milk date from 13th-century China, and it appeared in national cuisine (often eaten hot) over the following hundreds of years.
Soy was first introduced and cultivated in Europe and the United States in the 19th century, and in 1910, Chinese anarchist and educator Li Shizeng established the very first soy milk factory in Paris. Later, in the 1920s, similar factories began to appear in China and the United States.
The tiger nut horchata drink has also been popular in Spanish countries since at least the 13th century, and it was known in Valencia as “orxata de xufa”. In Mexico and other parts of the Americas, it is made from white rice, which gives it a rice pudding flavor.
Almond milk is native to 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 substitute for cow’s milk, and it is also found in English writings of the 1390s.
Coconut, in general, is a common ingredient in Southeast Asia and India, and a variety of dishes and drinks contain the distinctive ingredient. It also has a long history as a “ replacement ” for cow’s milk, and traditional coconut milk and modern varieties typically combine ground coconut flesh with water and a sweetener.
What 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. SPINS data shows that 13 percent of all dollar retail milk sales are now plant-based. While 37% of US households (around 45 million) regularly buy vegan milk.
But even though dairy is definitely phased out, not all plant-based milks are created equal. Each strain has its own unique environmental benefits and drawbacks (along with its nutritional profile and flavor).
While newer, exciting and less common plant milks include cashew, peanut, flax, millet (known in Nigeria as Kunu), pistachio, etc., we will focus on some of the Most common and accessible dairy-free milks: almonds, rice, coconut, oats and soy.
That said, hazelnut, hemp, and pea milk requires at least a brief mention. These are three of the most promising emerging plant milks in terms of sustainability, mainly due to their optimal nutrition and minimal environmental impact.
One of the most popular plant milks is almond. It’s delicious, low in fat and calories, and rich 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 amount of land and produces a fraction of cow’s milk emissions.
However, a glass of almond milk requires almost 80 liters of water to produce, and growing a liter of almonds would require 371 liters of water. Overall, it is still much less than dairy products, but certainly more than other comparable plant milks.
For this reason, growing almonds can cause problems in the surrounding area. In California – which produces about 80 percent of the world’s almonds – some say the industry has exacerbated the drought because it requires about 10 percent of the state’s water supply.
Almond production also has a huge impact on bees, as California’s nearly 7,000 almond farms require pollination. A survey by The Guardian in 2020, almond production was directly linked to 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, sweet flavor and is the least allergenic of all plant milk varieties. When fortified, it can also be a good source of vitamins and minerals like calcium. It requires less land than dairy, oats, soybeans, and even almonds, and can be found in Korea as Sikhye and in Japan as Amazake, popular regional and national drinks.
However, a single glass of rice milk requires 54 liters of water to produce, the third thirstiest 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 more than half of the world’s population – produces methane, contributing around 2.5% of all emissions. of greenhouse gases of human origin.
Coconut milk is popular for its creamy, nutty taste, and has become a welcome addition at coffee shops such as Pret in the UK, Peet’s in the US, 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 growing trees use minimal water – and absorb carbon dioxide.
But choosing fair trade certified coconut products is important, as the industry (which operates exclusively in tropical countries) has a history of exploiting workers and destroying the rainforest. Like palm oil, this is mainly due to unprecedented growth in global demand.
Despite soy’s reputation as a leading cause of deforestation, the study ranked it high for sustainability. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of soy-related deforestation occurs in the production of animal feed, not dairy-free and meat-free ingredients for vegans and vegetarians.
Although it has fallen somewhat out of favor with the advent of new plant-based milk options, soy milk can be both sustainably and nutritiously produced, offering comparable protein content to its counterparts. dairy. Numerous studies also show that regular consumption of soy can be beneficial for general health, especially for women.
Soy can be produced in the United States and Canada, and North American consumers will be able to find organic soy milk to ensure their morning coffee is free from deforestation.
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 Oxford University study, oat milk also uses minimal water and land, and although it creates a little more emissions than almond milk, it is more ecological than rice, soybeans and dairy products. Oat milk has a higher likelihood of gluten contamination, so it may be less suitable than other varieties for allergy sufferers.
Overall, moving away from dairy is the most important thing when it comes to sustainability and milk. Choosing plant-based milk that suits your budget, your diet and your needs will always be more environmentally friendly than cow’s milk, no matter which variety you choose.