The Positive Environmental Impact of Plant-Based Milk

Tuesday October 9, 2018 // By Dana Schlingman

Dairy Free Alternative MilkHere is the froth verses the facts from Gimlet Media’s Science Vs. Podcast (Click here to listen to the full podcast episode):

Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about alternative milk [or plant-based milk] in the specialty coffee industry. Over the last 10 years, consumers have become more conscientious about what they buy and put in their bodies. In turn, plant-based milk sales have doubled and dozens of new products have been developed.

The Variety of Plant-Based “Milk” Available
For example, Barista Pro Shop now carries almond, rice, soy, oat, macadamia, coconut and hazelnut dairy-free blends from 4 different brands. (Visit the BPS Catalog or our Alternative Milks Offered at BPS blog post to learn more).

Culinary Applications for Alternative MilkLarge dairy operations have even petitioned the FDA to more strictly regulate which types of products can be described as “milk” in order to push back against the growing trend away from traditional dairy. Should plant-based milk be called milk since plants don’t lactate?

Reasons to Switch From Dairy
Whatever you want to call them, plant-based milk certainly has become more than just a passing fad. Consumers are seeking dairy alternatives for many reasons:
• Taste preference
• A desire to reduce calories
• Food allergies or lactose intolerance
• Aversion to animal products
• Concern for the environment

The Environmental Impact of Dairy Vs. Plant Milk
Researcher Joseph Poore from Oxford University argues that making the transition away from dairy could reap huge rewards for the environment. He and a team of scientists created a database to record how various plant-based milk farms affect the environment (it includes data from 10,000 farms from around the world). Though each plant-based milk farm has its own vice or negative environmental impact, his findings suggest that all of them combined are significantly better for the environment than dairy farming:

Soy Milk Traditional Dairy: Globally dairy farms take up 830,000,000 million hectares (1 hectare = 2.47105 acres) of land – that’s an area the size of Brazil. It requires 9x more land to make a glass of dairy milk than a glass of any other type of plant-based milk. Dairy farms subsequently require more water for irrigation. They also produce more greenhouse gases than any type of plant-based milk farm.

Almond Milk: Compared to other plant-based milk farms, almond farms require more water for irrigation (4x more water than rice, oats or soybeans).

Almond MilkRice Milk: Rice farms emit the most greenhouse gasses of all plant milk farms. The bacteria growing in the water flooding rice fields excrete methane. In addition, flood water runoff from rice farming contaminates nearby bodies of water with fertilizer and pesticides. Rice farms exude about 3x more fertilizer runoff than other plant-based milk farms.

Soy Milk & Oat Milk: Both soy and oat crops require more land than other alternative milk crops. Furthermore, since soy is grown in the Amazon, soy farming could be contributing to tropical deforestation.

Which alternative milk is best for the environment – Poore thinks it’s a toss-up. But he is adamant that all plant-based milk farms have a much lower environmental impact than dairy farms. If everyone in the world switched from dairy, he estimates that it would save ½ a billion hectares of land, almost 1 billion tons of greenhouse gasses and 250 KM cubed of irrigation water a year (the same amount as if everybody in the world stopped bathing for a year).

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