Which vegan milk is best for the planet?

The carbon footprint of the dairy industry has become a topic of global interest. Greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and enormous water consumption due to dairy production has had devastating impacts on the planet.

Research has shown that meat and other animal products produce the most food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock has been found to be the largest use of global land resources, contributing considerably to deforestation. The global water usage in animal agriculture is 2,422 billion cubic meters, 19 percent of which is used to hydrate, clean and provide feed for around 250 million dairy cows.


The effect of dairy production on the environment has not gone unnoticed, with some taking up veganism to tackle the problem. The number of people opting for a vegan lifestyle in the UK has risen from approximately 150,000 in 2006 to 540,000 in 2019.

This has caused a growing market in plant-based alternatives, which has also sparked interest into what type of dairy-free milk is the most environmentally friendly.

Almond milk requires significantly larger water consumption than oat or soy milk, with 1.1 gallons of water needed to produce a single almond. Despite consuming a vast amount of water, around 80 percent of its crop is grown in California, an area that had the driest drought between 2012 and 2015 in around 1,200 years.

This has put significant strain on the surroundings and wildlife, as honeybees are needed for the pollination of the crops subjecting 1.6m hives to insecticides. Similarly, rice milk also has a high water consumption with 54 litres needed to produce one glass.

Oat and coconut milk demand far less water than almond and rice milk. This is due to oat being a winter cereal which is mostly rain-fed and coconuts being grown in areas with an abundance of water such as the tropical environments of the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Pacific.

Oat milk has also relatively low greenhouse gas emissions and land usage, with the brand Oatly claiming that 80 percent more greenhouse gas emission occurs during cow milk production than oat milk production. A study also found that the dairy industry requires ten times more land than oat milk to make the same volume of milk.

Whilst the carbon emission and water usage for soya beans is rather low, its land usage is substantially more harmful. It is estimated that 70 percent of deforestation is due to agriculture in which soya bean harvesting plays a prominent role, causing 2.6 million hectares of Brazilian rainforest to be destroyed each year.

It seems that oat milk is currently one of the best vegan milks available, with statistics proving that it is a sustainable and environmentally friendly option. These advantages have not been ignored, with the UK having the highest search interest in oat milk of any country in the last 12 months. A spike is observed in UK internet searches for milk alternatives during January suggesting that 2019 really is the time for new year, new milk.

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Emily Hawkes

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May 2022
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