You’ve Ditched Dairy. But Which Plant-Based Milk is Best for the Environment?
When it comes to the environment we all want to choose foods that do the least damage to our climate. One thing that is clear: Non-dairy milk is better than dairy for the environment, since the amount of water, grain and land, machinery, and CO2 emissions involved in raising cows is one of the highest contributors to global warming, according to scientific research. According to a study from the University of Oxford done in 2018 a single glass of dairy milk results in almost three times as much greenhouse gas emissions and nine times more land use than the equivalent glass of plant-based milk. Although non-dairy is better for the environment, each plant-based milk has a unique environmental impact to consider. Here's the low-down on your favorite cereal partner, milk or smoothie enhancer, or straight up sip.
Almond Milk: The bees pay the price for our love of almonds. So does water.
Almond Milk has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions and uses less land than dairy milk but almond milk is known for its high water usage. Almond milk requires more water than any of the other dairy alternatives: It takes 130 pints of water to produce a single glass of almond milk.
About 80% of the almonds used for milk in the US are grown in California, but in the hot climate, the water consumption of the almonds creates a lot of stress on the dry, arid land, especially during heatwaves and fires that are persistently devastating California.
What do bees have to do with it? They have to pollinate all those almond trees! As the almond industry grows, so does the bees' workload. Nearly 70% of commercial bees in the US are drafted every spring to pollinate almonds. Last year, it's estimated that one-third of the bees died from the pressures of this imbalance of growth.
Coconut Milk: The romantic desert-island tree with a dark side
Coconut sounds like a vacation drink: It looks like something a caveman (or woman) would have loved. Hearty, romantic, with a beautiful tree to call home! But the story is nothing short of sweatshop conditions, in countries with poor populations where pickers get paid less than a dollar a day.
There is now so much pressure to meet global demand for coconuts, farmers take shortcuts and even force monkeys into cruel labor practices, according to a PETA report that shows how the animals are chained to posts and forced to scale trees to shake loose the coconuts (an animal abuse story that has garnered international attention). “The coconut [trade] is an absolute tragedy and it makes me really sad,” says Isaac Emery, a food sustainability consultant. Cooking with coconut oil may be a luxury, but people endured difficult conditions to bring it to store shelves.
Meanwhile, in order to grow coconut trees, the rainforest is being cut down in favor of these rows and rows of trees, which offer little to the biodiversity of the planet. According to an investigation by The New York Times, between 2007 to 2014 rainforests in Indonesia were clearcut at the rate of three acres per minute to make way for coconut palm trees. To avoid supporting unsustainable practices, choose coconut products that are certified Fair Trade.
Rice Milk: Tiny little water-sponges, in a bad way
Rice milk is known to be a cheap alternative to its nut milk cousins. But it comes with a tradeoff since rice offers little in the way of nutrition or environmental benefits, compared with other vegan milk. Rice soaks up water, and it also produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other plant milk, the Oxford study found. Plus, the swampy paddies also release methane into the air, and allow bacteria to grow and then get released into the atmosphere. Rice is one of the worst polluters when it comes to water.
Hazelnut Milk: A rising star from the northwest
The harmless hazelnut, a chocolate lovers' dream, is coming on strong. Like all nuts, hazelnuts grow on trees, and all trees—all plants, in fact—use the energy of sunlight. They take carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground and they release oxygen back into the atmosphere (photosynthesis!). So, hazelnuts are environmentally superior to almonds since they get pollinated by wind rather than bees. Hazelnuts come from moist environments, like the Pacific Northwest, where water is more plentiful than arid California.
Hemp Milk and Flax Milk: Let's hear it for the little guys.
Hemp and flax haven't enjoyed the star turn of oat and almond, but they deserve more credit than they're given for needing little water, creating major protein-packed milk and a high fiber count. They're considered “niche crops” since they are grown in relatively small numbers. Seeds, in general, take less to grow than nuts and deliver healthy fats, minerals and nutrients ounce per ounce.
Soy Milk: After being avoided for years, it's enjoying a comeback
Soy wins for sustainability and also its protein content. And after being misunderstood as a plant-based phytoestrogen that women avoided because they worried it could promote the risk of breast cancer, the latest studies show the reverse is true: That soy appears to have some protective value when eaten in moderation. Recent studies have instead found that a moderate amount of soy is healthy, and actually may keep hormones in check.
The primary environmental drawback to soy milk is that soybeans are grown in massive quantities around the world to feed livestock for meat and dairy production. Large swaths of rainforest in the Amazon have been burned to make way for soy farms. The workaround for this is to simply do a little research and read the carton to find soy milk that is made from organic soybeans grown in the US or Canada.
Oat Milk: The mighty grain is crushing it, and is now everybody's favorite
When the latest Swedish invasion came to the states several years ago, in the form of Oatly, no one could have anticipated the love affair that was about to ensue. Oat milk is not only high in protein but tastes like the real thing. And growing oats is—at least as of now—relatively low-impact on the environment. Oats are healthy for you and the environment. And known as a low-input crop, which, when grown in rotation, oats create crop diversity and reduce soil erosion and help lower the risk of plant diseases. The mighty oat is actually a hero grain.
Of course, as sales of oat milk in the US have more grown from $4.4m in 2017 to $29m in 2019, placing it first ahead of almond milk as the fastest-growing non-dairy milk, oats could one day become more of a commodity. But for now, there are enough oats to keep us on Oatly for years to come.
Roundup Alert: Oats are usually grown in mass-produced industrial aggri-operations, where farmers spray them with the Monstanto glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup before harvesting. Roundup, as you are probably aware, has been linked to cancer in some high-profile cases where jurors awarded huge sums to plaintiffs. Still, farmers know the famous cases, each litigated in the public eye, but they continue to use the chemical for its effectiveness. Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018 is contesting that the active ingredient of Roundup—glyphosate—does not cause cancer in humans.
So how much of this glyphosate really is in that bowl of oatmeal or your oat milk latte? A recent study by the Environmental Working Group tested for glyphosate and found that it was in all the foods it tested containing conventionally grown oats—and even in one-third of products made with organic oats. However, the popular Oatly brand oat milk company maintains that its oats are certified glyphosate-free.
Pea Milk: The little protein engine that could
Pea protein milk uses less water than other milk alternatives and generates lower greenhouse gas emissions than most non-dairy milks do. One reason: Peas require 85% less water to grow than almonds and they can utilize nitrogen in the air and make plant cells, which means they require less fertilizer than other types of plants, and fertilizer has a large carbon footprint. The founder of Ripple Pea Milk, Adam Lowry, said recently: “Peas are much better [than alternatives] on a water and carbon basis.”
Pea milk may be one of the most sustainable options for your non-dairy milk choices, due to its low water requirements and the fact that it needs less fertilizer than any other option.
Cashew Milk: Less water than almonds, better land use, but harsh on laborers
Cashew Milk is most comparable to almond milk in both taste and consistency but with one main difference: Cashew milk uses a lot less water to produce than almond milk does. But cashews are hardly light on H2O: they require more water to produce than seeds and legumes. All in all, though cashew milk is considered a sustainable choice since it uses minimal land to grow the plants, especially compared to other plant-based milks. The downfall of cashews is the cruel treatment of cashew pickers. Because 60% of cashews are grown in India and there are known human rights issues surrounding the production of cashews, some people boycott cashews due to the harsh conditions for workers, including the use of labor camps in some areas where cashews are grown and processed for milk.
Macadamia Milk: One nut to consider, other than drought
Macadamia Milk requires significantly less water to grow and produce than almond milk or dairy milk. However, the areas where macadamia nuts are commonly grown have been coping with severe water shortages and other climate-related crises, such as Australia, Hawaii and other tropical regions. Macadamia nuts are considered to be moderately sustainable due to having lower environmental damage to air, water, land, soil, and forests, as long as pesticides have not been used. Try to buy organic and non-GMO Macadamia Milk if you can!
Bottom Line: Plant-based milks are more environmentally sustainable than dairy. But each of them has its positives and negatives. Out of these three pea milk is the most environmentally sustainable milk and amongst all of the milks, it is essentially equal to oat milk with its environmental impact. Both cashew milk and macadamia milk are significantly better than dairy milk and use less water than almond milk but it would lower their environmental impact to try and get non-GMO or organic versions where pesticides are not used. Both cashews and macadamia nuts are extremely common food allergens so those choosing these milks need to be careful.
So what are you ordering in your coffee?
Whether it’s hemp, almond, soy, or oat, pea, cashew, or macadamia, you should drink the plant milk that you like best since they are all better for the planet and animals than real dairy. For The Beet's own taste test, check out our product reviews, and add your own rating to the Beet Meter for the milk you like the best. As for the environment, as long as you're staying away from cow's milk, you're ahead of the game.