Animal-based milk is cruel, unhealthy, and harms the planet, which is why I’ve been drinking plant-based milk since 1990. I previously wrote about the healthiest plant-based milk, but the healthiest plant-based milk isn’t necessarily the milk that does the least harm to the earth. The criteria for identifying the most eco-friendly plant-based milk includes production location (e.g., water-intensive nut grown in drought region), wildlife and natural habitat impact (e.g., bulldozing Amazon Rainforest to grow crops), transportation required (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions to ship nuts from grower to plant-based milk producer), air and water pollution from fertilizers, and packaging (e.g., biodegradable, plastic, etc.). In this article, I explore the environmental impact of plant-based milk to identify the most environmentally sustainable options.
As a general rule, we can reduce the negative impact of our food purchases by selecting Fair Trade Certified products. Fair Trade Certified means that the production process aimed to minimize harmful social, environmental, and economic outcomes. The label signifies better working conditions, fair wages, and sustainability efforts. It doesn’t, however, indicate a product is vegan or organic.
This list of milk options provides insight into their impact on our environment, which includes water, air, land, forests, and other natural habitats.
The Worst (Last Place)
Dairy has the most significant negative impact on the planet. Dairy factories, which steal milk from a cow that’s intended for calves, emit greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide that warm the planet and pollute our air and water. To raise a cow to exploit her milk for profit, factory owners have to grow food to feed them. That process consumes an enormous amount of food, land, and water. Hydrating cows also consumes massive amounts of water. To produce an 8-ounce glass of cow’s milk, a factory emits .63kg of greenhouse gases, uses 1.79 square meters of land, and requires 125.6 liters (33 gallons) of water. Yes, it takes a mind-numbing 33 gallons of water to make one glass of milk from a cow. Given global droughts, that statistic alone should be persuasive enough to give up dairy.
While any of the plant-based milks are significantly more humane, sustainable, and healthy than drinking an animal’s milk, some of them have a smaller footprint on the planet.
Much Better than Dairy (Honorable Mention)
Almond milk requires the most water of the plant-based options, but still about half as much as dairy. Unfortunately, almonds are primarily grown in drought-stricken areas like California, which produces 80% of the world’s almond supply. It takes more than a gallon of water to make a single almond. The good news is that almond trees also absorb CO2 to help offset their water consumption. Plant-based MALK sources their almonds from Europe to increase the sustainability of their products.
Almonds require pollination, so bees are shipped to almond tree farms to pollinate them. These bees die on a staggering scale because they’re being stretched beyond their natural limits. The decimation of bee populations poses a serious threat to the animal and human food supply.
To produce an 8-ounce glass of almond milk, the production process emits only .14kg of greenhouse gases and uses only 0.1 square meters of land, but it requires 74.3 liters of water.
About 80% of coconuts come from Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, India, Sir Lanka, Brazil, and Vietnam. As a result, they’re transported long distances if you live in the U.S., for example, which significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions from boats, planes, and trucks. In countries like Brazil, the impact of coconut farming on the Amazon Rainforest has been significant as land is often cleared to grow coconut trees, which harms wildlife and reduces biodiversity. Coconut trees filter carbon dioxide, but the discarded parts of coconuts are usually burned, which releases significant carbon dioxide and methane. In addition to coconut milk, coconut products such as coconut oil rank low on environmental sustainability, although still considerably better than milk from animals.
Cashews use minimal land, but scant research exists on the environmental impact of cashews. Buying Fair Trade Certified cashew milk seems prudent if it’s your plant-based milk preference. The primary knock on cashews centers on the treatment of workers and workplace injuries they suffer from shelling the cashews. About 60% of cashews are grown in India. Many of the companies use labor camps, especially in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch has referred to the nut as “blood cashews” in light of the worker abuses.
Greenhouse gases such as methane are released from bacteria in rice paddies–more than any other plant-based milk. Rice paddies also release nitrous oxide–another potent greenhouse gas–when the rice fields flood. Rice growers also use pesticides that pollute land and water. On the plus side, growing rice uses less land than most crops.
To produce an 8-ounce glass of rice milk, the production process emits .24kg of greenhouse gases, uses only 0.07 square meters of land, and requires 54 liters (about 14 gallons) of water.
The animal agriculture industry has done a masterful job falsely sullying the reputation of soy to protect their profits. Fortunately, millions of people are learning the truth about soy. Soy milk ranks high on the list of healthiest plant-based milks. To promote environmental sustainability, buy organic soy milk made in the U.S. or Canada since companies in Brazil clear land in the Amazon Rainforest to grow soybeans in plantations. About 80% of soybeans are currently used to feed animals and produce oil–not to make soy milk, so we can significantly reduce production and land impact by transitioning to more sustainable food and energy sources. Soy milk scores well on the environmental scale.
To produce an 8-ounce glass of soy milk, the production process emits only 0.2kg of greenhouse gases, uses only 0.13 square meters of land, and requires only 5.6 liters of water.
The Best (The Climate Winners)
Peas can grow without irrigation. As a result, they use six times less water than almonds. Peas are considered one of the most eco-friendly foods because they make their own nitrogen. This trait is true of all legumes, which includes peas and beans. Nitrogen helps plants grow. Since peas produce nitrogen naturally, they don’t require synthetic fertilizer like other crops. Peas even create more nitrogen in the soil than they use, which makes them a star among environmentally-sustainable plant-based foods.
The wind pollinates hazelnuts instead of bees, so this plant-based milk offers a much more eco-friendly option than almonds. Hazelnuts are grown in moist climates and therefore use much less water to produce. Hazelnuts also thrive in depleted soil where other plants would fail, so they’re gentle on the planet because they don’t require fertilizers to the same degree as other plants. Many hazelnuts are grown in the Middle East though, so greenhouse gas emissions from transportation could be significant. For this reason, always buy local or from your home country if possible.
Flax seeds are pest-resistant and require very few fertilizers and chemicals and no irrigation to grow. Rainwater provides sufficient nourishment. Since flax milk is also easy to make at home, it ranks among the most eco-friendly plant-based milks.
Hemp requires very little water to grow, and it can grow without the use of herbicides and pesticides that pollute our air, water, and food. Hemp plants also breathe in four times more CO2 than trees. Hemp milk is widely considered an environmentally sustainable milk.
Some oat companies use glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup), an herbicide that research has shown may cause severe health issues, so make sure you buy glyphosate-free oats. Organic oats are glyphosate-free unless they’ve been contaminated by runoff from a neighboring crop. Avoid conventionally-grown oats.
Oats are grown in cool climates and rely mostly on rainwater, so they don’t require much irrigation or deforestation. With popular brands like MALK and Oatly laser-focused on reducing climate change, oat milk offers a healthy, delicious, and environmentally sustainable option. Oat milk is also easy to make at home, which reduces the impact of transportation and packaging. Here’s a homemade oat milk recipe.
To produce an 8-ounce glass of oat milk, the production process emits .18kg of greenhouse gases, uses only 0.15 square meters of land (about 80% less than dairy), and requires only 9.6 liters of water.
Consumers would benefit from more research on the environmental impact of plant-based milks to rank them more precisely. Given its surge in popularity, it would help eco-conscious people shop with greater confidence, but it’s evident from available research that some of them perform better than others. Any plant-based milk is exponentially better for animals, your health, and the planet than milk from an animal. Drinking milk from an animal is weird, unethical, and unnecessary.
I’ve now written about the healthiest plant-based milk and the most environmentally sustainable plant-based milk. My final installment in this series will focus on the most animal-friendly plant-based milk. It will weigh disruption to natural habitats, water pollution from pesticides, and other factors that could displace and harm wildlife and aquatic life. The end goal will be to help compassionate consumers make the healthiest, most eco- and animal-friendly decision when they buy milk.