cow’s milk and its alternatives

When looking for the right milk for one’s morning coffee nowadays there seems to be an endless choice – from different animal products to many plant-based options. We know that making a choice can be difficult, but have you ever taken into account the environmental impact of the milk you consume? 

Below you can find a little overview of the ecological footprint of milk and some popular alternatives…

Let’s start with a very familiar choice: cow’s milk! The demand for cow milk continues to increase all around the globe. This is due to a growing world population, urbanization, as well as the westernization of diets in countries such as China and India. Unfortunately, in comparison to any other plant-based milk, cow’s milk has the highest environmental impact. Dairy production puts a lot of pressure on natural resources, such as soil and fresh water. This is because (dairy) cows (and there are as many as 270 million of them) require a lot of space and drinking water. To put this in numbers, to produce 1 liter of milk we need roughly 1000 liters of water. Moreover, many cows in factory farming eat genetically manipulated soy from South America. The production of all this soy contributes to the deforestation of the Rainforest and the establishment of huge monocultures. Finally, dairy cows and their manure are major producers of the greenhouse gas methane, which is more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.

Almond milk used to be quite a popular milk-alternative – until studies revealed some concerning facts about its production. Let’s start with the positive facts: almond milk is the milk-alternative with the lowest gas emissions. Moreover, with almonds being the only tree-based alternative, the leaves of the almond tree lock up a lot of CO2. Some of the main issues with the production of almond milk are pesticide use and water use. It requires roughly 385 liters of water to produce a liter of almond milk, which is still much less than you need for a liter of cow’s milk, however, much more than any other dairy alternative. Moreover, recent studies about the use of honey bees in almond milk production created quite a buzz. 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California where commercial bee colonies are used to pollinate the almond trees. Within only a few months in winter 2018-2019 around 50 billion (more than seven times the human population) were wiped out. This can be attributed to the intense exposure to pesticides, loss of habitat and diseases on the one hand. On the other hand, an imbalance in the eco-system for bees is being created by the fact that European honey bees are imported to California to pollinate the almond trees. This drives out native bees, which are already struggling with the impacts of climate change. Thus, the production of almond milk contributes to the massive increase in bee deaths which triggers the question if almond milk can even be described as being vegan.

Soy milk was pretty out until recently. This was mainly triggered by the fact that soy contains the plant estrogen isoflavones, which is relatively similar to human estrogen. It was said that isoflavones could fuel breast cancer and endocrine disorders, however, these claims have been quashed by now. Unless you have an allergy to soy-based products, consuming soy is of no concern. When it comes to the environmental impact, soy milk is clearly one of the winners in our comparison. Greenhouse gas emissions during soy milk production are almost as low as those of almond milk, with one glass of soy milk being responsible for around 0,195kg of CO2e. Moreover, it takes roughly 297 liters of water to produce one liter of soy milk (less than a third than cow’s milk). The main environmental downside of soy production is that soy beans take up a lot of space and are being planted in parts of the Amazon Rainforest, which contributes to its deforestation. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that currently 85% of soy beans are being used to feed livestock and produce oil, rather than making soy milk. In fact, most of the soy beans used to produce soy milk in Europe have been planted biologically in Europe, without the use of pesticides and are genetically unmodified. Thus, it is important to do a little research and check the carton of the soy milk for the source of the soy beans and that they are being organically produced. 

Nowadays, oat milk is one of the most popular milk alternatives – and rightly so. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the production of one glass of oat milk (200ml) is responsible for 0,18kg of CO2e. This number is slightly above that of almond milk, however, still much below cow’s or soy milk. Moreover, it takes only 48 liters of water to produce 1 liter of oat milk, making it the most environmentally friendly milk in terms of water use. Also when it comes to land use oat milk scores quite high as it uses 80% less land than dairy milk requires. Furthermore, oats are grown in temperate regions, such as Northwest Europe, the US and Canada and are therefore also not associated with deforestation in developing countries. Despite these positive facts, there are of course also some drawback to oat milk. Since 2017 onwards the demand for oat milk increased drastically, surpassing even almond milk and making it the fastest-growing dairy-milk alternative. In order to meet the demand, most oats come from mass-produced, mono-culture operations and are sprayed with Roundup pesticides before the harvest. Thus, a recent study has found that many mass-produced oats contained glyphosate, an active ingredient in Roundup. Just like with soy milk it is thus very important to read the carton to find out where your oat milk is coming from and whether or not it has been biologically produced. 

So is there a clear winner? From our comparison it emerges that oat and soy milk seem to have a lower environmental impact of the three dairy milk alternatives discussed above. However, too little research has been done so far and most of the research done has been undertaken by the plant-milk producers themselves. As our demand for more sustainable options than cow’s milk grows, more research will emerge to help us get a better understanding of the true impact of milk alternatives. Nonetheless, one thing is quite clear – drinking non-dairy milk has a lower environmental impact than any animal milk.



10 thoughts on “Milk Alternatives

  1. This post prompted us to change our milk consumption to a more sustainable alternative in our household.
    Thank you very much for your contributions, keep up the amazing work!

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