Which Milk Is Best for the Environment? A Look Into Dairy and Dairy-Free Options
Learning about these dairy and plant-based milk options will help you make a positive choice for the environment.
The milk we regularly encounter at our local grocery store can easily be divided into two categories: dairy (animal-based) and dairy-free (plant-based). Between the two, dairy-free milk is undoubtedly better for the environment.
In recent years, the dairy-free milk options at grocery stores have only grown. Even the smallest stores typically have an option or two. While each plant-based pick—from oat milk to soy milk—is drastically better for the planet than its dairy counterpart, it's inevitable for any mass-produced crop to induce some kind of environmental impact. Nonetheless, the shortcomings of non-dairy milk production are nearly insignificant in comparison to the global issues caused by animal milk.
Below, we break down some of the most popular daily and dairy-free milk options so you can learn about the impacts of each. Even by reading this and looking into your options, you're already taking a positive step toward bettering the planet.
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The Environmental Impact of Dairy and Dairy-Free Milk Options
1. Cow's Milk
Impact on the Environment: 3.4% of Global GHG Emissions
Impact on Natural Resources: 30-50 Gallons of Water Per Cow Per Day
Cow’s milk is inarguably the most popular and accessible kind of milk. Unfortunately, it has by far the greatest impact on the environment. Cow’s milk requires nine times as much land and produces three times as much carbon emissions than any non-dairy milk alternative.
Cattle are generally responsible for 62% of the carbon emissions produced by the food industry, and emit 14.5% of all global greenhouse gasses. This makes cattle one of the leading causes of climate change. The primary reason dairy cows contribute so greatly to greenhouse gas emissions is their release of methane―a gas roughly 30 times more harmful than carbon dioxide―and their manure, which is highly degrading to local waterways. Dairy cows also greatly deplete freshwater resources, as they require twice as much water as dry cows.
2. Goat's Milk
Impact on the Environment: Higher Carbon Emissions Than Cows When Accounting for Transportation
Impact on Natural Resources: Take Up Less Space and Water Than Cows
Goats produce dairy milk that shares many of the same environmental impacts as cows and other livestock―habitat destruction, water use, and carbon emissions. Goat’s milk is not significantly better for the environment than cow’s milk, especially in comparison to non-dairy, plant-based alternatives. However, it does have a few advantages over cow’s milk.
Goat farming requires less water and land than cattle farming, and they produce less manure―presenting a low threat to nearby water sources. Additionally, the goat farming industry is considerably smaller than that of cow’s, and thus is primarily absent from mass-milking operations and large agribusiness corporations.
3. Hazelnut Milk
Impact on the Environment: Sequesters Carbon
Impact on Natural Resources: Uses Minimal Water and Is Drought-Resistant
Hazelnut milk, which is slowly rising within the milk industry, is arguably the most sustainable nut-based milk. Hazelnuts consume very little water, and are typically grown in regions with greater precipitation where drought and water storage are not major issues.
Some additional benefits? They are also wind-pollinated and do not necessitate commercial honeybees. Furthermore, farmers plant hazelnuts to reduce soil erosion and prevent surface runoff that would pollute local water sources. Best of all, hazelnuts sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than most other crops―thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions rather than contributing to them.
4. Rice Milk
Impact on the Environment: Emission Heavy, but Still Doesn't Emit as Much GHG as Dairy Milk
Impact on Natural Resources: Uses Minimal Water and Is Drought-Resistant
Rice milk―like all other plant-based milk―has a lower impact on the environment than mammal-made milk. However, its environmental downsides have historically been largely underestimated. Rice is by far the most polluting grain and an extremely water-intensive crop; 50% of all diverted freshwater in Asia is used to irrigate rice crops.
Flooded rice paddies also emit huge amounts of nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere―both major greenhouse gases. These gases are produced by bacteria and microbes in the waterlogged soil, and contribute to 12% of global methane emissions.
5. Hemp Milk
Impact on the Environment: Sequesters 4x More Carbon
Impact on Natural Resources: Builds Soil Health
Hemp milk may not be as widely used as other plant-based milks, but its environmental benefits are not to be overlooked. Hemp is claimed to have the potential to hinder climate change, as it absorbs exceptional amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and its byproducts are 100% biodegradable. They are also capable of growing without the use of pesticides.
Additionally, hemp is regarded as a “niche crop,” or a high-value crop that can be grown in a very small area of land. This eliminates the need for deforestation and monoculture farming that other plants call for.
6. Soy Milk
Impact on the Environment: Emits Significantly Less Carbon
Impact on Natural Resources: Uses a 1/3 of Water
Soy milk is generally the most common and accessible alternative to dairy milk, popular among lactose-intolerant consumers. It is also considered one of the most sustainable milk options; soy requires little water and pesticide use, a relatively small amount of land, and emits less than a third of the carbon emissions released by cows.
The only potential drawback is deforestation; certain parts of the Amazon rainforest are being destroyed in order to make space for soy plantations. However, this can be avoided by buying soy milk sourced from the U.S. or Canada, rather than South America.
7. Almond Milk
Impact on the Environment: Low Carbon Footprint
Impact on Natural Resources: Requires a Substantial Amount of Water
Almond milk has grown greatly in popularity in the past decade, which is likely attributed to its great taste and vegan-friendly aspect. Almond milk has a substantially lower carbon footprint and land use (80% less than cow’s milk) than any other milk. However, it still impacts the environment by other means. The leading concern regarding almond production is the high use of pesticides and water involved. The excessive pesticide use is extremely harmful to the environment and honeybees.
Furthermore, the year-round, demanding water needs of almonds especially harm the dry and drought-stricken California, where more than 80% of the world’s almond supply is grown. Because one almond requires nearly 4 gallons of water, the water-intensive crop comprises about 10% of the state’s total water consumption.
8. Pea Milk
Impact on the Environment: Fixates Nitrogen Benefiting Soil
Impact on Natural Resources: Uses Less Water Than Almond Milk and a Similar Amount to Soy Milk
Pea is often used as an environmentally-friendly source of protein for vegans and vegetarians. What many don’t know is that their milk is also a great sustainable dairy alternative! Pea milk is typically comparable to soy milk, as they both feature low greenhouse gas emissions and minimal pesticide use.
Unlike almonds, peas are grown in colder regions where droughts are not an issue and thus are not a threat to local water storage. Peas also belong to a group of plants called legumes; legumes are essential for facilitating nitrogen fixation, which is vital to the health of all plants.
9. Coconut Milk
Impact on the Environment: Sequesters Carbon Dioxide
Impact on Natural Resources: Use of Chemical Fertilizers
In comparison to dairy milk and how they are harvested, coconut milk is a relatively sustainable alternative. Coconuts do not require large amounts of water or pesticides, and are harvested by hand. The environmental issue with coconuts lies in the way in which they are farmed. Due to the growing global demand of coconut products, valuable ecosystems―such as mangroves and coastlines―have been destroyed. These areas are replaced with monocrops of coconuts.
Monoculture farming, or the large-scale cultivation of a single crop, is harmful to biodiversity, native plants, and the nutritious value of the soil. Many coconut pickers in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India are also exploited and paid unfairly, so be sure to check if your coconut milk is Fair Trade certified.
10. Oat Milk
Impact on the Environment: Significantly Less GHG Emissions than Dairy Milk
Impact on Natural Resources: Minimal Water, Energy, and Land Use
Oat milk is deemed by many as the most sustainable option out of all dairy and plant-based milks. Growing and producing oats requires less water and land than any other milk (almond production consumes six times as much water as oats), and produces very little greenhouse gas emissions as well.
Oats are also grown in colder regions, such as the U.S. and Canada, where large-scale deforestation is not as prevalent of an issue. Furthermore, there are no foreseen major environmental consequences that could arise from the growth of the oat milk industry.
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