How Your Favorite Plant-Based Milk Alternatives Rank on the Sustainability Scale
This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s spring editorial intern Megan Pavek. Find her on Instagram at @megan.pavek. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at email@example.com.
It’s no secret that Zillennials love plant-based milk alternatives. Not only do they have a longer shelf-life, but they are better for the environment than fresh dairy in most cases. Gone are the days of forcing children to finish their glasses of milk before leaving the dining room table. Millennials, Zillennials, and Gen Z are choosing to forgo the beverage altogether, impacting milk-drinking tendencies for generations to come. And when you do need milk for coffee or cereal, many will choose a plant-based alternative to avoid stomach issues or guilt about expanding their carbon footprint.
Milk shame is real, and is typically directed toward dairy-drinking adults. However, alternative milk fans shouldn’t be so quick to ride their high horses, as some plant-based options are not as eco-friendly as we assume. Today there are more milk options than ever, and just because the label proudly boasts plant-based doesn’t mean it’s automatically the most sustainable milk. So what is?
When determining sustainability, the main factors include: emissions, land use, water use, ethics, and how farming practices impact the surrounding ecosystem. Consumers have the power to reduce food’s environmental impact through education and intentional purchases. According to the BBC, producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions as plant-based alternatives.
There is no doubt that big dairy has a negative impact on the planet, but researchers note that purchasing and consuming dairy milk at the local level can help decrease emissions. If you want to continue drinking dairy milk, find a local farmer whose practices you trust and support!
The Dark Side of Almond Milk
Almond milk is one of the most popular plant-based milk alternatives and has low greenhouse gas emissions. Almond orchards have the ability to capture and store carbon, plus their co-products can be used for renewable energy and dairy feed creating the potential for them to become carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Sounds great, right?
The reality of growing almonds is not as promising, with National Geographic reporting that it takes three gallons of water to grow one California almond. In fact, 80% of the world’s almond supply is grown in California where severe drought has become common. Another aspect of this issue is that almond trees need to be pollinated, and currently an estimated 70% of all commercial bees are required for the job. Bees play a critical role in the environment and their population is already unstable, so essentially almond production is relying on resources that are unreliable and further exacerbating existing problems. It’s also been reported that the almond industry is having lasting effects on the bee pollinator population.
How Other Alternatives Rank
Arguably, oat milk is a better choice than almond when comparing water usage and farming practices that impact the surrounding environment. However, studies still find oat milk creating more emissions overall, along with a number of concerns regarding oat-growing as a large-scale monoculture. This means that only a single type of crop is grown in fields, allowing for efficient, large-scale agriculture. It also alludes that not all oat that is grown together is being used for the same products, with a majority going to livestock feed instead of your milk. National Geographic cites a 2018 report which found pesticides in the product due to farmers spraying Roundup on oats before harvest. While not all brands condone this practice, it may be worth looking into the supplier of your favorite oat milk.
Other popular milk alternatives include soy and hemp milk. Soy receives an A+ when it comes to lower emissions and water usage, however, it raises eyebrows when examining land usage and ethical farming practices. Mainly, the issue with producing soy as a crop is that it takes up a lot of space and is a large contributor to deforestation in the Amazon.
Hemp milk is viewed as a game changer by scientists, researchers and climate advocates alike. National Geographic reports that “hemp milk needs more water than soy but less than almond and dairy; its deep roots improve soil structure; and the plant creates shade, limiting weed growth and the need for fertilizers.” Additionally, the other parts of the plant that aren’t used for milk can be used for other products such as cloth, paper, and plastic alternatives which reduces overall waste.
Hemp milk is clearly a standout, but other alternatives like oat and soy are not far behind since they are produced from less water-intensive crops.
Do you drink plant-based milk alternatives? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!