You’ll be surprised to hear which plant milk is the most environmentally friendly. And no, it’s not almond milk!

Unlike a few decades back, the consumer today has many plant-milk choices available to them. Picture: jennyleenaguirre/Pixabay

Unlike a few decades back, the consumer today has many plant-milk choices available to them. Picture: jennyleenaguirre/Pixabay

Published Aug 23, 2021


Sunday was World Plant-Milk Day! No, we're not talking about the milk that drips off a mango or banana when you cut it off the tree, we're talking about the several "kinds of milk" obtained from the soaking, mashing, and squeezing of different grains, nuts, and legumes to produce what we call plant milk.

First commemorated on 22 August 2017, the day aims to promote and celebrate the use of dairy alternatives and to expose the conditions of the global dairy industry.

Robbie Lockie, co-founder of vegan news and current affairs organisation, Plant-Based-News established World Plant-Milk Day in 2017 then entered a partnership with ProVeg in 2018 to grow the campaign.

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By providing up-to-date resources and medically reviewed studies to consumers looking for dairy alternatives, the campaign has since gained the attention of millions of people from around the world, further encouraging many to make the switch from dairy to plant milk.

And unlike a few decades back, the consumer today has many plant-milk choices available to them.

If you stroll down any brightly lit health-food aisle, you will find around 34 different milk alternatives ranging from luxury barista-blend oat milk to thick coconut cream and bags of dehydrated rice milk powder. Options also range from sweetened plant milks to strawberry and chocolate flavoured options.

Part of the initiative to celebrate plant milks is to highlight the said negative environmental impact of dairy.

Oat milk. Picture: Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels

For instance:

* According to data, it takes just over a thousand litres of water to produce a single litre of milk.

* Dairy and cattle production is also said to be responsible for the release of millions of litres of methane gas every day. Methane is 25 times more efficient at retaining heat than carbon dioxide. Livestock raised for human consumption is estimated to contribute around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, most of this coming from the raising of cattle for beef or dairy. A single cow produces ‪250 - 500‬ litres of methane gas every single day.

According to the South African Milk Producers Organisation's 2018 Lacto-Data Report published in May 2018, South Africa produced ‪3 253 000‬ tons of milk in 2017.

That is just under 3.2 billion litres of milk from around ‪650 000‬ dairy cows.

If each of these cows released a minimum of 250 litres of methane per day, the South African dairy industry released 162.5 million litres of methane gas every single day in 2017 and drank up an estimated 3.2 trillion litres of water. That's 400 billion toilet flushes.

But - are plant-milk alternatives any better? Let's have a look.

According to a 2018 study conducted by the University of Oxford, "producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milks”.

Producing just a 250ml glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires 650m² of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts, more than 10 times as much as the same amount of oat milk, according to this study.

The study noted that almond milk requires more water to produce than soy or oat milk. A single glass requires 74 litres of water. Rice milk is also comparatively thirsty, requiring 54 litres of water per glass but is important to note that even the thirstiest plant milk, almond milk, uses over 10 times less water than cow's milk.

People tend to underestimate the greenhouse gas emissions from food, and dairy milk is no exception, according to research by Dr Adrian Camilleri, a psychologist at the University of Technology Sydney.

The greenhouse gas emissions from milk he believes, are about 30 times higher than what people estimate.

Results of the study concluded that of all the plant-based milks taken into consideration (almond, rice, oat, and soy), rice milk produces the highest amount of carbon emissions and uses the second-highest amount of water but uses the least amount of land. Almond milk production uses the highest amount of water but releases the lowest amount of carbon per 200ml of milk produced.

The most environmentally friendly plant-based milk award would go to the humble oat.

Using relatively small amounts of water and land, and being the second-lowest carbon emitter, oat milk is the best milk alternative in terms of environmental impact.

Most of the world's oats are grown in cooler climates such as the northern US, Canada and Europe and are therefore not associated with deforestation in developing countries.

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It needs around 48 litres of water to produce 1 litre of oat milk commercially and up to 80% less land than cows milk.

Oats are also super easy to make at home! Get yourself a cup of rolled oats and 4 cups of water. Toss into a high-speed blender and blend on high for 30-45 seconds. Then strain through a clean T-shirt or towel. Soak the oats overnight before blending for best results.

Whatever your choice of plant milk is, the environmental impact of it will still be chump change compared to dairy milk. So, whether it is luxury barista-blend oat milk for your latte or simple soy for your morning cereal, go wild.

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