Dairy milk isn’t great for the environment, right? Between flatulent cows, poor land use and vast water consumption, the industry has a major environmental impact around the world. But choosing a worthy, tasty and maybe even nutritional alternative for your morning coffee or cereal seems to be a tall order.
That’s not for the want of options, of course: the market is booming. Globally it has grown 8% each year in the past decade, with dairy-free milk representing 12% of dairy and alternative milks globally in 2017, according to Euromonitor, and there are endless variations on almond, soy, oat, rice and coconut milks available at the supermarket.
But while they’re all much better than milk, they’re not quite as virtuous as they appear. For instance, those who thought they were doing the right thing when they switched to almond milk have been aghast to discover the devastating impact that industry has had in California.
So what to drink? 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. “There is complexity [and] nuance depending on where people live [and] the specific product that they are looking at – not just the type of milk, but the specific brand, the specific product may have a very different supply chain compared to another very complementary product. So there is no definitive answer.”
Yet if we compare the carbon emissions, the water consumption and the pesticides and fertilisers used during the farming process in Australia, along with nutritional value, there are a few winners.
Soy is usually the first stop for those looking for milk alternatives, and there are countless variations to choose from. But international soy farming has had a devastating impact on the Amazon rainforests – and then there’s the whole genetic modification debate.
Australians get a bit of a reprieve, says Hadjikakou, pointing to research that shows most Australian soy milks are derived from homegrown whole beans. Even though soy is likely to require a reasonable amount of water and phosphorus fertiliser, in his opinion it’s a good option. “I wouldn’t imagine that it’s impacting the environment in ways that are comparable to, say, soybeans produced in Brazil or Argentina, where deforestation is a huge issue.” And on the plus side, soy milk contains protein, giving it some nutritional value.
Almond and rice milk
These are increasingly popular milk options in coffee shops but both almond and rice are water-intensive crops and growing them in arid climates is likely to cause problems, says Hadjikakou. While the impact of almond farming isn’t as intense in Australia as it is in California, the situation in the Murray-Darling basin, where much of the almond production comes from, is under stress.
And although the water allocation for rice farming is closely regulated in Australia, it depends on the wider environment, says Hadjikakou. “The question that really matters is how many of those litres are used in water-scarce environments and what is the real impact of that amount of water on the ecosystem. It’s not just the sheer amount of water – if that water is used in a climate or at a time of year when water is plentiful, then it’s got much less of an impact on the ecosystem than compared to the case where that water is drawn from a depleted aquifer in a water-scarce region.”
The good news is oat milks appear to have the lowest environmental impact, says Hadjikakou, particularly those derived from Australian oats. “Oats are mostly grown as a winter cereal and are largely rain-fed – although there is supplemental irrigation in certain cases – but they appear to me as an option that doesn’t really suffer from that water contribution scarcity as almonds and rice would, and it also has the other benefits like lower CO2 emissions, et cetera.”
Where it does fall down, however, is its nutritional value. While oats are largely a healthy grain to include in your diet, the milk is highly diluted with water, giving it little nutritional value. Hadjikakou suggests most oat milks would need to be fortified if they are to make a nutritional contribution.
Coconuts also have a fairly low environmental impact, according to Hadjikakou, as they’ll only grow in areas with plentiful water like the tropics, including Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Pacific, and they require low amounts of pesticides and fertilisers. Yet while they’re not associated with palm oil deforestation, they are often grown in areas that can have impacts on tropical biodiversity.
But, as for oats, there are questions about the milk’s nutritional value, even the highly diluted coconut drinking milk versions. “Coconut is probably the one that is the least good in that sense, also because it does have a high saturated content,” Hadjikakou says. “So it’s got something negative about it and doesn’t offer as much of the benefits as perhaps soy and almond milk does.”
One of the latest entries in the milk alternatives race is camel milk. Last year Australia’s largest camel dairy, the Australian Wild Camel Corporation, increased the size of its herd to make it more commercially viable.
Hadjikakou says it could be an interesting option because camels are not true ruminant animals like cows, so they don’t produce methane. Yet camel milk does have a high nutritional value, as does all animal-derived milk. And camel meat is considered a sustainable form of protein, at least in Australia where camels are designated as pests.
The crunch will come, says Hadjikakou, if camel farmers decide to ramp things up because letting them roam around the country could damage the biodiversity. “There is a concern if production was scaled up, then the impact on the environment is considerable.”
Hadjikakou has some final advice: “Perhaps the solution is not to go to extreme consumption in any one of these products. Mix it up a bit – don’t have only rice milk or only almond milk. Basically, don’t go to extremes.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010