You might have read our previous article on how cows contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. We concluded that article about how you can still put milk in your latte whilst decreasing your carbon footprint by substituting cows milk for a plant based alternative. Let’s take a closer look at one such alternative: almond milk. How does its environmental impact compare to dairy milk and other plant based milks?
Almonds and Peanuts
Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air focuses on almond milk in chapter 19: Nuts. Wherein it looks at the impact of a glass of almond milk and a spread of peanut butter – yum. It begins by establishing that most emissions from the creation of produce like almonds and peanuts comes from the fertilizer used to grow them, as well as the fossil fuels used to pump water – almonds grow on thirsty trees.
As with most crops, the greenhouse-gas emissions are mostly from fertilizer (box 2.1). The amount of almonds harvested from a tree can vary significantly (by 5 times) depending on the amount of fertilizer available, as well as other factors including the weather and the soil quality.
Also, depending on where the almonds are grown, they may need to be watered – if fossil fuels are used to power pumps to bring the water up from under the ground then this can contribute about one third of all the almond greenhouse-gas emissions (and cause other environmental problems). Overall, typical commercial almonds cause about twice their own weight in emissions.
1 g almonds = 2 g emissions
How does the climate impact of almond milk compare with that of cows’ milk? We have to take into account the emissions from producing almonds, as well as processing them into almond milk, and the packaging, transportation and refrigeration.
To be really be climate-friendly, should we make our own almond milk at home, to keep the transport emissions as low as possible? Just soak some almonds overnight in water, then whizz them up in a blender and strain the result. Anyone who makes their own almond milk sees the large amount of leftovers in the strainer. It takes about 50 grams of almonds to make one (250 ml) cup of almond milk at home, of which more than two thirds gets left over as pulp.
In terms of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, it makes sense to make your own almond milk only if you use the pulp as well. If you put the oven on especially to dry out the pulp then this might blow all the emissions you’ve saved from avoiding dairy milk. And, if you’re making almond milk to put into a smoothie, then you can reduce emissions and get some extra fibre by instead adding ground almonds and water and skipping the straining (if you don’t mind a slightly grainy texture).
Apparently you can use the pulp for smoothies, or dry it out and use it as a handy gluten-free flour for baking. But how many people really do this, and how much mush goes into the bin and causes methane at the landfill site? Industrial production lines can get a lot more milk out of their almonds than I can from squeezing my tea towel full of almond mush. And if the factories aren’t already turning the residue into cakes and puddings, they will at least be using it as animal feed.
Returning to the commercial almond milk calculation, and assuming only 25 grams of nuts are needed to make one cup, the almond milk raw ingredient (almonds) cause 10 times less emissions than dairy milk. Transportation, packaging and storage in supermarket fridges adds to both the almond and cows’ milk total emissions. However because the almond emissions are so small, the other contributions are likely to make up most of the total almond-milk emissions, which often makes estimates of non-dairy milk emissions “only” two times better than cows’ milk.
You’ve had the chance to learn about impact of almond milk on the environment and how it compares to dairy milk emissions. Get a closer look at the environmental impact of both cows and plant-based milk alternatives like soy in a our blog post on milk and cow burps.
Alternatively you could read more about how to change your diet to save the planet in ‘Food and Climate Change Without The Hot Air’, available for purchase as a paperback where all good books are sold, or you could buy the ebook for £/$ 0.00 (yes, really nothing to pay.) Get the Kindle ebook here and the EPUB here.