Almonds are out. Dairy is a disaster. So what milk should we drink?

A glass of dairy milk produces almost three times more greenhouse gas than any plant-based milk. But vegan options have drawbacks of their own       
            Annette McGivney Wed 29 Jan 2020

When choosing a plant milk, it’s important to consider how the crop impacts people and native habitats, along with its carbon footprint and water use.

For environmentally minded consumers, the news is hard to swallow: almond milk is not healthy for the planet and the popular milk substitute is especially hard on bees. Our recent investigation into the connection between California’s industrialized almond industry and a record 50bn commercial bee deaths created quite a buzz. The widely read story prompted one primary response from readers: “What should we be drinking instead?”

This is a thorny question, and food sustainability experts are reluctant to single out any one plant milk as best because all have pros and cons.

But we’re going to try.

One thing is clear. All milk alternatives are far better for the planet than dairy. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Oxford showed that producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk and it consumes nine times more land than any of the milk alternatives. (Land is required to pasture the cows and grow their feed, which the animals belch out in the form of methane.)
Plant-based milk is better for the planet than dairy, but it can have a dark side.

Various vegan plant based milk and ingredients, top view, copy space. Dairy free milk substitute drink, healthy eating. Photograph: ID 143428818 © Oksanabratanova | Dreamstime.com


Plant-based milk is better for the planet than dairy, but it can have a dark side. 

Plant milks can, nevertheless, have a dark side, as when any crop is produced in mass quantities. It’s important to consider not just whether they are grown using organic methods. Other factors include how the farming of the crop affects people and native habitats in developing countries, the carbon footprint and water use. And while each product has its trade-offs, some plant milks are more sustainable than others.
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Based on interviews with experts, here is a an environmental ranking of plant milks, from the disappointingly sour to the sustainably sweet.

Coconut: ‘An absolute tragedy’

Global demand for coconut milk has led to deforestation and exploitation of workers. Photograph: Image by miguelcruz30 from Pixabay

Coconut has a reputation as exotic and healthy, but for poor regions in the Philippines, Indonesia and India, where pickers are often paid less than a dollar a day, the palm groves are no paradise.
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Because coconut trees only grow in tropical climates, the pressure to meet global demand is causing exploitation of workers and destruction of rainforests. “Coconut is an absolute tragedy and it makes me really sad,” Isaac Emery, a food sustainability consultant. “I love cooking with coconut milk but I don’t feel good about buying coconut products. Farmers in Indonesia should be growing food to feed their families instead of meeting international demands.”

According to an investigation by the New York Times, between 2007 to 2014 rainforests in Indonesia were clearcut at the rate of three acres every minute to make way for coconut palm trees. To avoid supporting unsustainable practices, choose coconut products that are certified Fair Trade.

Almond: bad for bees
While almond trees occupy smaller amounts of farmland . . .


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