What Is the Best Milk For The Planet?

Glass of milk in front of grass

With more time spent at home, you might be in pursuit of the perfect morning beverage. Whether that be your sustainably brewed coffee or your plastic-free cup of tea, you might need to add milk. But, when it comes to the environmental impact not all milks are the same. Based on research from Oxford University and the BBC, we’ve broken down the components of all of your favorite milk alternatives so you can choose the best milk option for you and the planet! 

Anything But Dairy Milk 

The first thing to know about milk alternatives is that in general, as long as it’s not dairy, the milk alternative you choose is likely better for the environment. When evaluating the impact of milks, you want to look at a few different factors. 

1.     What emissions are associated with producing your milk? Dairy milk is the highest emitting milk, as the emissions generated from feeding dairy cows and from the cows themselves surpass those of all other milk alternatives. According to an Oxford University study, the emissions generated by the production of dairy milk can be three times that of plant-based alternatives. 

2.     How much land is used to produce your milk? Land use is an important factor in determining the sustainability of your milk. To produce dairy milk, dairy cows need a lot of land to feed and graze. The land use for dairy cows is far greater than any plant-based milk alternative.

3.     How much water is used to produce your milk? We tend to look at water use more closely when comparing plant-based alternatives, but dairy milk requires more water than all plant-based alternatives as well. 

Plant-based alternatives all have their pros and cons, but from an environmental standpoint, they are all better for the planet than dairy. Here’s how the most common dairy-alternative milks stack up:  

Rice Milk: 

Rice milk has a significantly smaller footprint than dairy milk but also has higher carbon emissions compared to other dairy-alternatives. Rice is grown in an environment that breeds a lot of bacterial growth. These bacteria actually release greenhouse gasses which contribute to the carbon emissions from rice milk. 

Pros: 

Rice milk is relatively inexpensive, and is better for the environment than dairy! 

Cons: 

Rice farming releases more greenhouse gasses than any other plant-based alternative. 

Almond Milk: 

Almond milk is popular in the United States, but there are several drawbacks to almond milk to be aware of, and many that have gained a lot of media attention. Growing almonds requires a lot of water. According to the BBC it can take 130 pints of water to make one pint of almond milk! When compared to other plant-based milks, this is the most significant amount of water needed. A more surprising drawback to almond milk? The impact of almonds on bee populations. In order to grow almonds, bees are required to pollinate the flowers. However, the climate best suited for almond growth is not best for the bees, and many perish quickly. 

Pros: 

Almond milk has lower greenhouse gas than other plant-based alternatives and does not use as much land. 

Cons: 

It requires a lot of water and it puts our bees in danger! 

Soy Milk: 

Soy milk was one of the first popular dairy alternatives and remains to be a great option. Soy milk also has the most protein and nutrients compared with other plant-based options. Soy has fallen out of favor due to the quantity of estrogen, but in moderation and without any restrictions from your doctor, soy milk is a good alternative to dairy milk. 

Pros: 

Relatively low land use, carbon emissions and requires very little water. 

Cons: 

Soy can be produced sustainably, but you do have to check on where your soy is sourced from! Some soy farms use land cleared in the Amazon to grow the plant, which isn’t great for the environment. 

Oat Milk 

Oat milk has been steadily growing in popularity in the U.S. and can now be found in most coffee shops and grocery stores. Oat milk is a strong contender for the most sustainable milk option. Bonus, you can make oat milk yourself at home! Check out how below: 

Pros: Oat milk has relatively low emissions, and requires less land use than rice and soy milk and uses significantly less water than almond milk. 

Cons: Oat milk is still pricey if you buy from the store. 

Homemade Oat Milk Recipe:

  • 1 cup of rolled oats
  • 3 cups of water
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • dash of vanilla extract
  • one date or one tbsp of maple syrup

Blend the ingredients together on high for 30 seconds, strain through a mesh strainer and then strain a second time through a nut milk bag or cheesecloth. Store your milk in a sealed jar or other sealed container for up to one week. 

Niche Milks: 

Finally, there are some niche milks gaining popularity and making strong contenders for environmentally friendly options. Other nut milks like macadamia milk, cashew milk, and hazelnut milk are popping up on shelves, and are thought to be better alternatives to almond milk, but there hasn’t been extensive research quite yet. Hemp milk is also becoming a popular option but is produced on such a small scale it’s hard to compare its environmental footprint. 

You can perfect your morning routine with any of these milk-alternatives and each has its positive attributes and its negative attributes. The key is to skip dairy milk if you can! 

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