Oat, soy, almond, coconut, hemp or dairy?
These are just some of the many choices we face at the market and the café. How to choose? Taste is certainly a factor, but what about the rest of it? We all know by now that everything we buy or consume comes with an ecological footprint. We want to make responsible choices but sussing it all out can be confusing. We’ve put together a handy guide to all things “milk”. There’s really no right or wrong answer, much of it comes down to personal preference. The main thing is to diversify your choices.
Good ol’ fashioned milk from a cow. Tastes great, affordable and widely available. Not the greatest choice from an environmental point-of-view.
You may not be surprised to hear that traditional dairy milk has the biggest environmental footprint. A 2018 study estimates dairy to be around three times more greenhouse gas emission-intensive than any plant-based milks. The global warming potential is 3 – 4 times higher than plant-based alternatives. It also requires nine times more land and up to twenty two times as much water!
The OG alternative milk. It’s been around Asia for centuries and became popular in the west starting in the 1980s. Soy milk has a very good environmental performance in terms of water, global warming potential and land-use. Soy, like all legumes, is nitrogen fixing. This means the bacteria in plant tissue produce nitrogen, which improves soil fertility and reduces the need for fertilisers. Legumes are also water-efficient, particularly when compared with almonds and dairy.
However, a major concern is the need to clear and convert large swathes of native vegetation to grow soybeans. You also need to look out for GMOs, laws require GMO products to be clearly labeled, so these are easy to identify.
Milk can be made from almost any nut. Nut milks generally require small land areas, the trees they grow on absorb carbon and, at the end of their life, produce useful woody biomass. Still, there are vast differences in the conditions where various nut trees are grown.
Compared to other plant-based milk options, its water use is high and largely depends on freshwater irrigation. One California almond requires 12 litres of water, which raises questions about the industrial production of these nuts in water-scarce areas. TK BEES California is the largest producer of almond milk in the world, followed by Australia.
The environmental impact of coconut milk is pretty good. Coconut trees use small amounts of water and absorb carbon dioxide. However, as coconuts are grown only in tropical areas, the increased production of this milk can destroy important wildlife habitat.
Maybe the best nut option from an environmental perspective. Hazelnut trees are cross-pollinated by wind, eliminating the need for TK bees. Hazelnuts grow in areas with naturally higher rainfall so they demand much less irrigation than almond trees.
We can produce plant-based milk from almost any grain, these days rice and oat are proving popular. However, they require more land compared with nut milks.
Rice is a tricky one. Rice requires a huge amount of water, but relatively little land. Rice has higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to the other plant-based options because methane-producing bacteria develop in the rice paddies. Another thing to note is that in some cases, rice milk may contain unacceptable levels of arsenic. And applying fertilisers to boost yields can pollute nearby waterways.
It feels like Oat milk is suddenly everywhere. Oat milk has been becoming increasingly popular around the world because of its overall environmental benefits. It needs relatively little water and land and it can be grown in many regions around the globe. However, most oat operations are large-scale monoculture, which means it’s the only type of crop grown in a large area. This practice depletes the soil’s fertility, limits the diversity of insects and increases the risk of diseases and pest infection.
Neither nut nor bean, hemp milk is derived from a seed. Hemp seeds are processed for oil and milk, but the plant itself is very versatile — all its parts can be used as construction material, textile fibres, pulp and paper or hemp-based plastics. Its roots grow deep, which improves the soil structure and reduces the presence of fungi. It’s also naturally resistant to diseases, and it produces a lot of shade, which suppresses the growth of weeds. This, in turn, cuts down the need for herbicides and pesticides. Hemp requires more water than soy, but less than almond and dairy.
So now what?:
There’s no one right answer to the milk question. The best course of action is to diversify your choices. It’s pretty clear that plant-based milks have a lighter impact than dairy, but shifting to only one option means the market demand may potentially become overexploited.
Organic versions of all these milks (including dairy) are better for the environment because they use fewer chemical fertilisers, they’re free from pesticides and herbicides, and they put less pressure on the soils.