Now that it has become painfully clear that we are in the anthropocene era, having changed the face of this planet both in terms of the environment and climate, many of us are trying to make changes to the way we live and consume, by eating green. While many of the changes we make to our lifestyles will be beneficial, it is worth it to look at some others that may not be. After all, it is always good to get the complete data and make informed choices, instead of unquestioningly accepting the latest eco-trend because it makes us feel good.
The eating green/ vegan food fad is the one I want to talk about here, specifically non-dairy milk products. There is no doubt that the dairy industry is a huge contributor not only to climate change but also to the environmental issues, in terms of the huge amount of land that needs to be cleared for dairy farms. Cattle (for both beef and dairy) are responsible for 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic green house gas (GHG) emissions (FAO). Out of this, various estimates suggest that dairy farming alone contributes almost four percent to global GHG emissions. Clearly we need to look closely at our meat and dairy consumption. What should we replace dairy with? Let’s have a look.
Almond milk may seem to be the best option and now makes up to 12 percent of global milk sales (Euromonitor). It tastes good and is plant-based. What could go wrong? Well, the carbon created by almond milk is much less than cow’s milk (360gms per litre v 1.67kg for one litre of semi-skimmed milk), So far so good. But here comes the bad news. First of all, 80 precent of global almonds are grown in drought afflicted California and it takes 350- 370 litres of water to produce one litre of almond milk. That’s a lot. But then it takes about 628 litres of water to make one litre of cow’s milk. Almond has other issues though. First of all, an inordinate of amount of pesticide is used by almond farmers. And secondly, almonds need bees for pollination, so commercial honeybees are taken from one pollination site to another to pollinate Californa’s almonds. This exposes them to pesticides and a monocultural environment, which is itself fed by deep water wells. Thousands get sick and die – one estimate has highlighted a record 50 bn commercial bee deaths – and this point is important for vegans. Your almond milk is not as vegan as you might think.
Rice milk also requires a lot of water at about 270 litres to make one litre and 50 percent of all diverted water in Asia is used to for rice. Flooded rice paddies emit huge amounts of methane and nitrous oxide (both are major greenhouse gases (GHG) that contribute 12 percent of global methane emissions) and rice is a pollution spreading crop too.
Still, both almond and rice green house gas emissions are nothing compared to cow’s milk, which are almost three times the emissions of any non-dairy milks, according to a University of Oxford study.
Coconut milk has been used in Asia for centuries and as demand for non-dairy milk products rises, it has also become a trend in western countries. Coconut is a relatively sustainable option, mainly because it is harvested by hand and does not require large amounts of water. But due to the rise in demand, various ecosystems such as mangrove forests and coastlines are being replaced with coconut monoculture – a practice harmful to biodiversity, soil health and native plant species. Coconut pickers in countries in Asia (like India and Philippines among others) are exploited for their labour and not paid a fair wage and in some countries (India,Thailand, Sri Lanka) monkeys are trained to harvest coconuts. No matter what is said, one can never be sure that the animals are treated well and not exploited. In fact, it is possible that the macaque monkeys are captured from the wild, kept in cages or tied up.
Oat and soy require 48 and 28 litres of water respectively to make one litre of milk. However, soy is the driver behind the deforestation and destruction of South America’s cerrado grasslands and the Amazon rainforest. It emits much less green house gases than cow’s milk per se, but if you include the increase in emissions due to deforestation, the number is much higher. In addition, such deforestation is extremely detrimental to the local biodiversity. So, your tofu and your soy latte are not all that environmentally friendly.
Oat milk is a better option, with fewer emissions, low water use (48 litres of water to make one litre of milk), and low land use. Overall, it is the most sustainable option at the moment but farmers do spray plants with pesticides (glyphosate) before harvest. So watch out for that.
Hazel nut milk is also sustainable (perhaps more than all the others) and tastes delicious too. It uses much less water and is mainly grown in regions with ample precipitation. Hazel nut trees also don’t need insects for pollination, they rely on wind. And they have environmental benefits because they are planted to reduce soil erosion and runoff. Finally, they sequester (store) more carbon than many other plants.
There are also the less commonly used hemp and pea milk options. Hemp products (such as fibre) are used as environmentally and climate friendly options and it has been considered a food and medicine source throughout history. Hemp milk is made by blending seeds of the Canabis sativa plant with water. It has many environmental benefits such as being good for soil nutrition and reducing soil erosion. However, it does require more water than soy and oats but less than dairy and almonds. One thing to keep in mind is that because it is not consumed as much, there is little data on its full environmental impacts.
A very new contender is pea milk, where split yellow pea flour is blended with water to make the milk. Its benefits are similar to soy in terms of nitrogen fixing, low water usage and greenhouse gas emissions.
The bottom line is that dairy is still the most destructive to climate and the environment, but before you order your almond or soy latte, it makes sense to have further information about their impacts before deciding that they have no adverse effects.