4 Milk Alternatives and Their Environmental Impacts

4 Milk Alternatives and Their Environmental Impacts

When thinking about switching to a more sustainable diet, there are a lot of factors to consider. Replacing cow milk with an alternative such as oat or almond milk is a great place to start. While all milk alternatives are better for the environment than the real deal, there are differences between the environmental impacts of the alternatives themselves. Trying to research which one to douse your morning cereal in, while minimizing your environmental impact, can make your head spin. Luckily, we at Treefy are here to help.

Today we will be looking at:

  • Anything But Dairy
  • Almond Milk’s Environmental Impact
  • Rice Milk’s Environmental Impact
  • Soy Milk’s Environmental Impact
  • Oat Milk’s Environmental Impact
  • Which Milk Alternative is the Right One for Me?

Anything but Dairy

Before we get into the nitty gritty of milk alternatives, it’s super important to note that all of the alternatives we will be discussing today are less harmful to the environment than cow milk.

The graph below from the BBC shows the environmental impacts of 200 ml of rice milk, soy milk, oat milk, and almond milk versus dairy in terms of emissions, land usage, and water usage. While the four alternatives vary in their environmental impacts when compared with one another, all of them fall far below dairy in all three categories.

Graph comparing environmental impact of Dairy versus rice, soy, oat, and almond milks

Almond Milk’s Environmental Impact

Let’s start with some of the upsides of almond milk: it generates the least amount of emissions of the four alternatives, and also requires less land use than soy and oat milk.

However, producing almond milk requires a lot of water. The BBC found that just 1 glass of almond milk requires 74 liters of water.

Jug of Almond Milk and Almonds

According to the University of California, while a 2011 study found that almond trees can survive with as little as 7.6 inches of water per year, a 2007 study found that in order for the almond trees to produce a maximum yield, they require 54 to 58 inches of water per year.

The Almond Board of California states that California produces 80% of the world’s almonds, including 100% of the United States’s almond supply.

According to Mother Jones, California’s almonds use three times as much water per year as the city of Los Angeles. In a drought-prone state like California, almond’s reliance on lots of water for maximum yields can have a big impact on the environment, not to mention the world’s almond milk supply.

Vegan rice milk, non dairy alternative milk

Rice Milk’s Environmental Impact

While the Guardian calls rice milk a “water-guzzler,” rice milk actually uses less water than almond milk. According to the BBC, one glass of rice milk requires 54 liters of water to produce.

The biggest environmental impact of rice milk comes from the process by which rice is grown. Farmers flood rice paddies to encourage growth, providing the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, which pump methane into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the water used to flood the rice paddies pollutes waterways with fertilizers.



Soy Milk’s Environmental Impact

On the other hand, soy milk uses the least amount of water of the four alternatives. It’s main environmental impact stems from the fact that soy production since the beginning of the 1900s has led to massive deforestation. Two of the largest soy producers in the world are Brazil and Argentina.

According to the Guardian, Argentina provides more than a third of total European soya meal imports, making it the largest single supplier of soya bean meal to Europe. The Argentinian government has cleared nearly 25% of its forests since 1996 in order to make way for soy production.

Fresh Homemade Soy Milk

Similarly, according to the Global Forest Atlas, Brazil, the second largest soybean producer worldwide, currently has 24-25 million hectares devoted to growing soy. That said, the article notes that 80% of soybeans produced in the Amazon are used for feeding livestock, with a much smaller percentage going towards products for direct human consumption. A study at Oxford University found that 67% of deforestation for agriculture is for livestock feed, especially soy, maize, and pasture. By clearing forests to make way for the production of soybeans, we are losing millions trees that can sequester carbon dioxide.

Vegan oat milk, non dairy alternative milk

Oat Milk’s Environmental Impact

By now you’re probably wondering, if all of these milk alternatives have negative consequences for the environment, which milk alternative am I supposed to use? The answer may lie in oat milk.

Oat milk uses less water than almond and rice milk, at about 48 liters of water per one liter of oat milk. Additionally, growing oats could actually be good for agriculture. In the Upper Midwest of the US, the two main crops are corn and soybeans. Because of the prevalence of just two crops, farmers have to use a slew of pesticides and fertilizers against insects, weeds, and fungal pests. Both crops are planted in late spring and harvested in early fall, leaving the fields fallow during winter months. As a result, erosion can occur, causing the soil to lose nutrients.

According to Matt Liebman, an agronomist at Iowa State University, adding in a third crop of oats and a legume such as red clover could be the solution to erosion and the heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers. A third crop such as oats disrupts weed patterns. Liebman’s research shows that this can result in a 96% drop in herbicide use. Additionally, red clover takes nitrogen from the air and deposits it into the ground.

According to a Mother Jones article, “All together, three-year plots require 86 percent less added fertilizer to yield slightly more corn and soybeans—while dramatically reducing erosion and chemical runoff.”

However, the article notes that in order to incentivize farmers to plant oats, there needs to be a market for it. While an increase in oat milk consumption alone might not be enough, it would help get the ball rolling on the transition. Thus, we as consumers have the power to bring about real positive change through our consumption habits.

Which Milk Alternative is the Best One for Me? 

Now that we’ve examined the environmental impact almond, rice, soy, and oat milks, you might be wondering which one to choose. Yes, among one another these alternatives do vary in terms of their environmental impact, but remember that all of them are drastically less harmful than cow milk.

Above all, the best alternative to dairy is the one that you will actually enjoy consuming. Don’t be afraid to try new types of milk alternatives and figure out which one works the best for you. If you force yourself to drink rice milk when you actually prefer almond milk, chances are it may start to feel like a punishment for choosing to live more sustainably. All of these alternatives are still better than cow milk, so with these facts in mind, choose the alternative that best serves you.