Foods that can save the world: What’s the best choice for a milk alternative?

How can you reduce emissions?

You might have read our previous article on how cows contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. We concluded that you can still put milk in your latte and decrease your carbon footprint by using a plant based alternative instead of cow’s milk.

Unfortunately not all milk alternatives are created equal. Many come with their own environmental or ethical pitfalls which can be difficult to navigate. Here we explore your options:

What’s the best choice for a milk alternative?

Soy Milk

Soy beans are an obvious choice when it comes to finding a vegetable alternative to animal produce. It’s often the first name in plant proteins. However, soy products do have a downside. The recent increase in soy production has lead to increased deforestation, which off-sets some of the benefits of reducing carbon emissions. Ironically these soy bean farms are mostly used to feed livestock. A self-perpetuating problem. However, if land currently used to feed or keep cattle or other animals were instead committed to feed humans, it could be the best option.

Soy milk was the go-to alternative long before almond.
Figure 1. Soy in its many forms

Almond Milk

Almond milk has a lot of promise as a substitute to cow’s milk. While it doesn’t create methane like cows, it creates greenhouse-gas emissions from the fertilizers used to grow it. Additionally almond trees require very large quantities of water to feed them and require bees to pollinate them. Bees have been dying en masse trying to support the industrial scale of almond farming.

Almond farming is placing unsustainable pressure on bees and beekeepers.
Figure 2. Almond seeds and milk

‘Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air’ describes how you might reduce emissions by making your own almond milk at home. You soak almonds overnight in water, then blend and strain them. It takes about 50g of almonds to make one (250ml) cup of almond milk at home, of which more gets left over as pulp. Unless this pulp is used in smoothies or dried out to make gluten-free flour, it becomes mush that will create methane in the landfill. Because factories use the mush as animal feed you should only create your own almond milk if you use every part.

Commercial almond milk can create a cup of almond milk from 25g of nuts and therefore causes 10 times less emissions than dairy milk. However, estimates usually reckon almond-milk emissions to “only” be two times better than cows’ milk because of transportation, packaging and storage in fridges – all of which are similar to dairy milk emissions, but because almond emissions are so small, the transportation emissions are proportionally greater.

Oat Milk

Similar to soya beans, oats are a great source for delicious plant milk. Like soya, they have drastically lower emissions compared to dairy milk. An added benefit is that 50-90% of oat farms are used to create feed for animals and preexisting acreage has been used to make the oat milk which has risen in popularity. This is in marked contrast to the deforestation used to farm ever more soya. Finally, oat milk presents fewer environmental concerns, requiring less water and pollination than almonds. It also grows in colder climates, so it doesn’t need to exploit the developing world.

Homemade Oat Milk Recipe - Jasmine Smith | Food & Wine
Figure 3. Cups of oat milk

The Bottom Line: No Moooore Milk

Whatever dairy milk substitute you choose, it will always be preferable to relying on dairy milk. The environmental impact of oat, almond, soy, or hazelnut milk, cannot compare to the harm done by cattle farms. Cows require water and land, and the Amazon rain-forest is ravaged to create farmland to feed cows the oats or soy which could instead replace the cows themselves. Stopping or curtailing your own consumption of dairy is one of the most direct steps you can take towards reducing your emission footprint.

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