Milk vs. Alternative Plant-Based Products How Sustainable are They?

Update: Starbucks has announced a new direction towards sustainability in the hopes of “giving more than we can take from the planet.” One of the initiatives is to move to more plant-based products as the concern that milk contributes more to greenhouse gases. I have updated some of the sustainability numbers.

When it comes to the dairy cooler of your market, there is no shortage of options. Not only is there dairy milk, but almond, soy, coconut, and oat “milk.” Unless you are allergic or vegan (see below regarding lactose intolerant), choosing between these products could come to a choice of which product is the most sustainable. According to Nielsen’s Global Health and Wellness survey, 44 percent of Generation Z said ingredients sourced sustainably are very important in their purchase decisions, followed by Millennial (38%) and Generation X (34%) respondents.

When it comes to sustainability, each product affects the environment in different ways with regards to greenhouse gas emissions, but there are other factors to consider such as packaging, energy, transportation and other uses from the byproducts to make your milk. Some of the information below will assist when it comes to making a choice the next time you are in the market.

Cow Milk

There have been stories in the media regarding animal agriculture and its contribution to the greenhouse gas methane. According to the EPA, methane accounts for about 10 percent of the total greenhouse gases emitted and of that total, methane production from cows accounts for 36 percent when including manure management. While methane is 21 times stronger than Carbon Dioxide (CO2), it stays in the atmosphere for about 12 years versus 50 to 200 with CO2. Researchers are working to stem the amount of methane produced from cows by changing their diet and with microbes in wastewater facilities. Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, states there is a problem with comparing methane to carbon dioxide and that the numbers used by most environmental reports are faulty.

Another factor to consider is small dairy farmers. Despite efforts from the Trump administration to assist dairy farmers, the rate of small dairy farms closing is substantial. An online search of “dairy farm crisis” reveals not only the numbers but the effects on farmers’ mental health and their families. The closings also affect rural communities with a loss of dollars spent in those communities.

Other factors to consider for sustainability, milk is not transported over long distances, their diets are not only forages but byproducts from the processing of other agriculture products. Cow manure is spread onto fields, bone and blood meal is used in some organic production. And as much as you probably don’t like to think about it, dairy cows are sold for beef, and there are several products that come from cows such as medicines, lubricants, leather and many ingredients in household products.

Almond Milk

Sales of almond milk have grown by 250 percent to 894 million dollars in 2015, according to Nielsen. When it comes to purchasing almond milk, the most significant sustainability issue is water. California is the largest producer of almonds and in the throws of a water-rights fight between urban and rural. It is estimated that it takes between 960 to 1,611 gallons of water to grow and process one liter of almond milk (this compares to 77 to 277 gallons for cow milk production).

Regarding greenhouse gases, almonds produce more Carbon Dioxide, but when compared to cows it produces less overall greenhouse gases. Another greenhouse gas, Nitrous Oxide (N2O) which almonds produce due to fertilizer use. While N2O is not a significant greenhouse gas, accounting for 6 percent of total emissions, it is 300 times more potent than CO2. In a UCLA study conducted in 2016 analyzing the life cycle assessment comparing CO2 emissions, for every 1 liter of milk, almond milk was much lower at 0.3637kg versus 1.67kg for dairy cows.

There are two other factors to consider when considering sustainability, transportation and lack of use for byproducts. Almond milk is transported across great distances to reach markets. Thus emissions from this factor could negate the difference in CO2 emissions. The manufacture of almond milk produces over 4.3 billion pounds of almond hulls per year. Some of that is being recycled for animal feed and bedding, which seems like a bit ironic since it is slowly replacing the cows, but there is still a large portion to recycle. While researchers are working on creating biomass for fuel, plants in California are closing. USDA researchers are also developing compostable bioplastics, but there is no timeline when it will come into fruition. While it would only make a small dent, hard cider and IPAs are also being crafted from the hulls.

Additionally, there is a growing concern regarding bee populations used to pollinate the almond orchards. Commercial beekeepers are reporting huge losses to their hives due to mites, pesticide use, and habitat loss. In addition, advocates argue that it is also impeds on the habitat of native bees and destroying their ecosystem.

Soy Milk

As with almond milk, there are the same considerations when considering sustainability including transportation and processing. In regard to water use, it takes approximately 78 gallons of water to produce one liter of soy milk. As there are 3.78 liters to one gallon, it requires about 295 gallons of water as compared to 77 to 277 gallons for the production of soymilk. Stefan Unnasch, a researcher with Life Cycle Associates, was hired by Ripple a maker of pea milk,  Unnasch found that producing one liter of pea milk results in 387 grams of carbon dioxide emissions and one liter of soy milk produces 397 grams of carbon dioxide.

Other sustainability factors to consider are the sourcing of non-GMO soybeans as most soymilk is produced with them. According to Research and Markets, despite double-digit growth in the planting of these beans in 2018 as compared to the previous year, the yield was expected to decline seven percent. The study also states, “US organic soybean supplies are projected to be insufficient over the 2017/18 marketing year, as the flow of organic soybean imports has slowed significantly. Over the 2017/18 marketing year, the author expects US organic soybean imports to reach 15.1 million bushels.” This importation would not only add CO2 to the atmosphere, thus negating any savings of required energy growing beans versus raising cows. To meet the demand for soybeans, there are also fears of rainforests being cleared for soy production in Brazil. Also contributing to the CO2 equation are the transportation costs associated bringing finished soymilk to supermarket distribution centers.

Oat Milk

Oat milk is a relative newcomer to the alternative milk game, but its popularity is rising. According to Bloomberg Business, retail sales of oat milk in the US have soared from $4.4m in 2017 to $29m in 2019, surpassing almond milk as the fastest-growing dairy alternative. Rather than using the same process as other plant-based milk of using water to extract the “milk,” they use an enzymatic method. There are no facts as to the amount of water used in making the product or growing the oats. Unlike almonds which require large amounts of water or alternatives which are grown overseas, most oats are grown in Canada and the Northern Plains. Hence, transportation is not as much of an issue, but there is a large amount of electricity in the production of these products contributing to CO2 levels of greenhouse gases.

Other Plant-based Milk

In addition to those discussed above, there are several others that have the same considerations when it comes to the sustainability of the product. With cashews, most are produced overseas in Vietnam, India and Nigeria. Are the shells and other byproducts, used for biofuels or other purposes? Coconut milk has the same issues as only a few countries grow coconuts and the destruction of native vegetation needed for demand. From an ethical standpoint, workers in these countries typically make less than one dollar a day.  While rice milk is good for those with allergies, the paddies produce 20 percent of the total manmade methane into the atmosphere through a process called methanogenesis. Rice also requires large amounts of water in the form of rice paddies, but the numbers are conflicting. The amount of CO2 produced from these two alternatives should also be factored as they are produced overseas and need to be shipped to the United States, processed, packaged, and shipped to stores.

Finding figures for specific factors such as electricity required and other production requirements is difficult for each of the plant-based alternatives. Transportation accounts for about 11 percent of 8.1t CO2 e/y footprint for food production with an additional four percent from producer to retail. “Buying local” could lower this carbon footprint and a factor when buying any of these products. Having this information in one article will hopefully help with this decision as I have several links to give you further information.






*(The reason I don’t specify lactose intolerant is there are some dairy products that are tolerable including Lactose-free milk or Fairlife milk. Therefore, you can choose between all those mentioned).


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