Green milk. Which milk alternative is best for the planet?

by: George Major
21 Aug 2018

We use alternatives to cow’s milk for all kinds of reasons; health and ethics being two big factors. Globally, around 65% of people have some degree of lactose intolerance (in parts of Asia and Africa over 90% of the population do.) And, by some accounts, dairy farming causes even more suffering to animals than meat farming does.

But increasingly, the environmental impact of dairy farming is driving people to seek out alternatives to cow’s milk. The WWF estimates that there are 270 million dairy cows in the world. The combined burping of all those cows is, on its own, a significant source of greenhouse gases. Millions of tonnes of cow manure get washed into watercourses every day, and each litre of milk produced takes over 1000 litres of water to make. Meanwhile, drought and water shortages are increasingly frequent all around the world.

However, the biggest factor in the environmental impact of dairy and non-dairy milk alike is not actual production of the milk itself. Transporting the milk from the producer to the consumer uses far more resources. According to one Dutch study, 99.7% of the water used in soy milk is accounted for by the supply chain, not the actual growing of the soybean crop.

Dairy products are made all around the globe, meaning that they often don’t have to travel far to reach the consumer. In contrast, cultivation of crops used in non-dairy alternatives tends to be concentrated in just a few regions. This means that, if you are concerned by the carbon-footprint of your milk, cow’s milk from a good quality local dairy can be more sustainable than non-dairy milk that has been shipped thousands of kilometres (on the other hand, a lot of the milk available in Hong Kong has travelled a long way too.) It is also worth considering that the industrial-scale cultivation of single crops required to make milk alternatives requires greater use of pesticides and puts more pressure on resources than varied production of crops on smaller, more local, scales.

There’s no right or wrong answer on whether to ditch dairy and what to replace it with. it’s a personal choice and there are a lot of factors to weigh up. Below, is our breakdown of the environmental impact of some of the non-dairy milk alternatives to help you make an informed decision.

Soy milk

Getting one litre of soy milk onto a supermarket shelf requires 297 litres of water. A big improvement on cow’s milk. However, the popularity of soy milk and the need for more space to grow soybeans is a major driver of deforestation. South American nations account for a huge proportion of soybean production, meaning that soy is contributing to the degradation of the Amazon rainforest and is putting already endangered species such as the Jaguar at risk. The US is the world’s largest single soybean producer. 94% of soybeans grown in the US are genetically engineered, which is a big no-no for some consumers. Furthermore, the pesticide glyphosate (most commonly sold under the name Roundup) is commonly used in soybean production. This pesticide is controversial to say the least.
Almond milk
Almond milk has a reputation for using a lot of water in its production. A single almond requires 4.16 litres of water to grow. However, a carton of almond milk contains surprisingly few almonds, so it still has a smaller water footprint than dairy or soy. This also means that it has very little nutritional value. 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, a region that has suffered from repeated severe droughts. So, the issue here is not so much the amount of water required to make almond milk but the problems that arise when production of a commodity is concentrated in one area. It arguably makes some short-term economic sense, but can be environmentally catastrophic.

Coconut milk
Coconut milk is one of the less water-intensive milk alternatives, plus coconut production is concentrated in countries with high rainfall - Indonesia and Philippines being the largest producers. So in terms of water sustainability, it’s a good option. Coconut cultivation has not driven deforestation in the way that soybean production has, making coconut milk a relatively good alternative. That said, with production concentrated in a few countries, the environmental cost of transporting coconuts is high.

Rice Milk
One kilo of rice requires around 3000 litres of water to grow, giving rice milk a far bigger water footprint than dairy. However, seeing as rice is the most widely consumed staple food in the world, its use as a dairy substitute really represents a drop in the ocean in terms of environmental impact.

Other mammals
It goes without saying that cows are not the only animals to produce milk; sheep and goat's milk provide arguably better nutrition than cow's milk. These animals are more tolerant to extreme climates and more resistant to disease than cattle. So, fewer resources are required to raise them and the misuse of antibiotics seen in dairy farming is less likely to occur. Also, providing sheep and goats with a good diet is more sustainable than feeding cows on grain. This makes sheep and goat's milk potentially more environmentally and economically sustainable than cow’s milk. Also, sheep and goat's milk production tends to happen at a far smaller scale than cow’s milk production, which helps keep it sustainable. Obviously, if goat's milk production were to become industrialised on the scale of soy or cow's milk, a lot of its environmental advantages would be lost.

Our conclusion
There’s no perfect solution, no single option is capable of replacing all others; imagine if the world produced enough of one crop to replace all dairy. The result would be environmental devastation; large-scale production of a single crop requires more pesticide use, is more water-intensive, encourages deforestation and increases the environmental cost of transportation compared to growing a variety of crops. The most environmentally friendly solution will involve maintaining a variety of crop types.

There are a few things we can do to improve the sustainability of our diets. In all cases, organic production causes least harm, uses less water and produces less greenhouse gas. Food that has travelled less distance has less environmental impact. Knowing where your food comes from and how it was produced is far more powerful than deciding to simply replace one foodstuff with another.

For more like this: Vitasoy's new green milk launch