We’ve all heard the saying “there’s no use crying over spilled milk”, but with heavy impacts on environments and biodiversity… are there some cases that we should be getting upset over?
In 2016, freshly travelled and ready to start my degree, I took on the veggie lifestyle for an environmental ethos and never looked back. I felt better, reduced my carbon footprint and saved a heap of money. But through research from my degree I started to realise that on top of meat, not all dairy products are what they seem…
With milk being one of the most demanded products across the globe, its consumer impacts can be dramatic at the source. So, what links milk to our environment and which plant based products are the best alternatives?
The Issue with Dairy Milk…
Dairy from cattle is the most commonly used form of milk and is increasing in demand alongside global population growth. From 2005 to 2015 alone the dairy industry was seen to expand by a massive 30%.
Drowning our cereals, hot drinks and cooking with it, there’s rarely a day that dairy milk doesn’t make its way into our diet. So what’s the problem?
Looking at the BBC in the diagram below, I was shocked to see just how dramatic the impacts of dairy milk truly are in comparison to other options. According to the WWF it’s said that around 270 million dairy cows are currently farmed across the world… with this population on a constant increase, what can we expect to see from an environmental perspective?
Cattle herds are an unexpected culprit for greenhouse gas production. Due to the species ruminant stomachs and microbial activity, they release methane into our atmosphere via digestion releases. The problem with this is that methane is roughly 30 times more potent than CO2 in regard to its atmospheric and climatic impacts. With the cattle industry accounting for around 40% of our annual methane budget, the statistics are worrying on top of the already imminent impacts of carbon on our global environmental changes.
Dairy farming outside of the UK has also had a dramatic impacts on land use. Stated in a BBC article in 2019 “producing one glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires 650 sq m (7,000 sq ft) of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts”… That’s around 10 times as much land needed for one glass of oat milk. In many places across the world, such as Brazil, this land use can be seen to play a devastating part in the unnerving world of deforestation; the impacts of which are both heavily environmental AND social.
As well as this, it takes approximately 144 gallons of water in the US to produce just one glass of milk. In an article written in 2014, scientists found the biggest contributor to milk production water usage was from the feed used the rear the cattle before they even harvest the milk; accounting for between 50% – 86% of all usage. The paper also found that a massive 19% of ALL global livestock water usage comes from the dairy industry.
All in all, though our furry friends may be innocent on small scales, the more modern mass global production of dairy has had notably large impacts on our climate and ecosystems and will continue to do so into our future. So… what are other plant-based options and where do they stand in the battle of the milk?
Soya milk is one of the most favoured alternatives for its taste and consistency whilst also offering a protein content comparable to dairy. It even has a fairly low water and land use count in comparison to dairy. But despite its popularity, soya milk has more recently been exposed for its momentous impacts on global biodiversity and carbon sinks.
If not sustainably certified, soya is grown in large monocrops across the world to provide both human and animal feed. The increasing demand for produce has caused unimaginable destruction of important forests and biodiversity hotspots across the globe, including the iconic amazon rainforest where production has quadrupled in the last 20 years alone.
These large parts of rainforest, rich in plant and animal species, are being burned and cleared to make way for commercial crops. As a shameful consequence, those hotspots of biodiversity are disappearing at unnatural rates and species are becoming endangered or even extinct. In fact, a worrying recent study found that 65% of UK soya imports were retrieved from countries with dangerously high deforestation rates.
As an extension of this issue, the loss of tree species is coinciding with a reduction in carbon question, the process whereby plants would be removing harmful climate change educing CO2 from the atmosphere for photosynthesis.
Pros: Tastes good, provides high protein content
Cons: responsible for rainforest destruction, biodiversity loss and reduction in global carbon sink
Unfortunately for you almond milk lovers, it’s time to break the news that this particular alternative has some scary negative impacts….
Almond milk is renowned for its tremendous water usage and the facts are worrying. Though lower than cows milk, statistics show that 1,611 US gallons of water is harnessed to produce just ONE glass of milk. While this may seem already dramatic, almond crops are grown in places like California where water is already scarce. In fact, 80% of all almond milk is grown in the sunny state where farmers are continuously creating new monocrops to feed the demand. With pressure on water resources already in force, the risk of drought is high.
These unsustainable monocrops are also being linked to a dramatic decline in vital bee species across the states. In 2020, the Guardian launched an investigation into this quoting almond milk to be like ‘sending bees to war’. For the full article make sure to read here.
Pros: Tastes good
Cons: Highest water usage as an alternative, impacts on bee species, driver of drought
With a recent surge in coconut demand from westerners, coconut milk has become a new contender in the plant based world of milk. Grown in tropical climates, coconut plantations require far less water than other options and the trees themselves help absorb CO2 from our atmosphere.
However, when researching this alternative I noticed a few hidden secrets. Due to being grown in tropical climates such as Indonesia, the transportation of such milk to the Western world has a high impact in terms of food miles and transport emissions (compared to more local UK dairy farms). Unfortunately, this aids global climate change rather than deterring it.
An article from The Guardian also expressed concerns over the exploitation of labour in coconut plantations where workers are paid little to keep up with high Western demand. Though sustainability is key to our future, I don’t believe ethical standards should be sacrificed.
Pros: requires less water, acts as a carbon sink
Cons: high food miles, concerns over labour and work environments
I haven’t crossed many paths with rice milk but research suggested that it can taste similar to dairy milk, making it an attractive option as an alternative.
However, rice milk is one of the biggest suspects in this debate for water usage. Grown in large paddy fields, the rice plants sit in a low level of water which requires constant irrigation. These paddy fields are also bad for methane production due to bacterial activity in the stagnant water; an issue already brought to light by dairy milk. Modern crops are also often genetically modified which can be a controversial topic for many.
Pros: tastes similar to dairy milk
Cons: high water usage, paddy fields produce harmful methane emissions
Oat milk is a clear winner in the world of dairy free alternatives. Delicious in your coffees, teas and over your cereals, oat milk has made a stark rise in popularity in recent years. Plus, with the ability to make it from the comfort of your home it’s hard to get much more local.
Entering the UK market in 2019, we became the ‘highest oat milk searchers’ across the globe in the 12 months that followed… and this was no unhealthy obsession. The humble oat requires far less water and land to grow than other options and is produced in colder climates such as northern Europe and Canada where water security is high. Being grown in these countries also means that working environment standards are high and labour is paid fairly. The only issue discovered with oat milk was that on occasion, oats can be grown in monocrops and sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.
Many chose to buy from the iconic oat milk brand ‘Oatly‘ who declare how much CO2 was used to produce, package and deliver each carton to stores and has called for others to do the same.
Pros: Low water and land use, grown in colder climates, good working standards, can be made at home, tastes good
Cons: May have been grown in crops using herbicides or pesticides
Though many plant- based options come with their own issues, the facts still show that dairy milk produces far more negative and intensified impacts. By choosing your diet wisely and knowing the consequences of your alternative, you can create a demand that changes the global and more local market. Though milk may seem like a small part of your day, your small decisions can create larger changes in the long run. For me, it’s oat milk all the way.