We were talking with one of our friends recently and she commented on how many vegan milks are available at the grocery store these days. She felt as though there was a new option each time she went to the store. That’s of course a bit of an exaggeration, but there has been an explosion of vegan milks recently. The sale of soy milk alone has increased 250% between 2011 and 2016. You can now find almond, rice, coconut, hemp, oat, and soy milk to name a few, so we started thinking about the environmental impact of all the different milks and which ones we should be using or avoiding.
What is the environmental impact milk?
We all know it takes a lot of land, water, and fertilizer to raise the food to feed methane-producing cows, so comparing vegan milk options sounds like a good idea to us. Of course, we'd like to be able to just do some research and find the most environmentally sustainable vegan milk and know what to buy. But of course, it's not that easy. According to an interview with Guardian magazine, “Dr. Michalis Hadjikakou, who researches the sustainability of food systems at Deakin University’s school of life and environmental sciences, says it’s complicated and understandably overwhelming and there is no definitive answer.”
The BBC Science Focus Magazine chose almond milk as the best vegan option for the environment in terms of CO2 emissions and land use based on a University of Oxford study. Here are some interesting statistics that the study found to compare the environmental impact of one glass (200ml) of different milks:
Emissions (kg) Land use (square meter) Water (liter)
Dairy 0.63 1.79 125.6
Rice 0.24 0.07 54
Soy 0.20 0.13 5.6
Oat 0.18 0.15 9.6
Almond 0.14 0.10 74.3
A few of our thoughts on our vegan milk research
We wish the study had included coconut milk; it has a small environmental footprint as well. Coconuts grow in the tropics where there is a lot of rainfall and they require very few fertilizers and pesticides.
Nutritional value is another factor that we haven't really focused on but is very important when choosing your milk. Coconut milk unfortunately doesn't have a high nutritional value. Soy milk on the other hand is very close to dairy milk in protein.
To add another layer of complexity, we need to avoid any soy product that is grown in South America, since they are destroying large areas of the Amazon rainforest for soy cultivation.
We haven’t even talked about the taste of each of these milks! That's obviously quite subjective and up to personal preference, but the Sierra Club compared quite a few of the vegan milk options and they found oat milk to be the best tasting option.
There are so many variables and it depends on where you live and how the vegan milk sources were grown, packaged, and transported.