The impact of animal farming on the health of our environment has been extensive and global, from its effect on climate change, water use, forest destruction, river pollution, floods, and dead zones in the sea. It’s time to ditch the dairy and switch to plant-based milk.
Dairy products are a dietary staple of 6 billion people worldwide, or 80% of the human population. We’ve been conditioned by the dairy industry since childhood (remember those milk moustache ads?) to see milk as a healthy option, necessary for strong bones and growing bodies.
But the truth is, humans are the only species on earth that drinks milk after infancy, and we’re also the only one drinking milk from another species. For much of the developed world—where there are other options—dairy milk is not necessary for our survival, nor our health. In fact, factory farming, from which most of our meat and dairy products are derived, has raised ethical, environmental and health concerns—due to the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, as well as cholesterol levels— and has proven to be very detrimental to the health of our planet. From its affect on climate change, water use, forest destruction, river pollution, floods, dead zones in the sea, the impacts of animal farming are extensive and global.
Animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels.
Today’s agricultural system is incredibly resource intensive, covering 43% of the world’s ice- and desert-free land. Of this land, 87% is for food, with a significant proportion of that dedicated to animal agriculture— meat and dairy. When you consider that there are 1.7 billion cows on the planet, that’s a huge problem. Cows produce copious amounts of greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change, and poor handling of manure and fertilizers can degrade local water resources.
In fact, animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels. Furthermore, unsustainable dairy farming and feed production can lead to the loss of ecologically important areas, such as prairies, wetlands, and forests.
It’s time to ditch the dairy and switch to plant-based options. Production of plant-based drinks requires less water and land to yield the same amount of cow’s milk, and it releases less greenhouse gases, making these drinks more eco-friendly. According to a 2019 Oxford University study, producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milks.
The study's research leader, Joseph Poore, concluded in an interview with The Guardian that "A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.” Not only that, but a plant-based diet is cruelty-free.
The practices of many dairy factory farms are distressing and cruel (see YouTube video Dairy is Scary) from the squalid, confined indoor spaces cows are forced to live in; physical abuse like kicking cows in the face and udders, or repeatedly electrocuting them with cattle prods; to the production of milk. Cows don’t just produce milk automatically. A mother cow only produces milk when she gets pregnant. From about the age of 15 months she will usually be artificially inseminated. When she gives birth, her calf will typically be torn from her within 36 hours, so the farmers can take the milk intended for her calf, and sell it to you. If the calf is male he gets immediately slaughtered for veal. If the calf is female she gets put through the same cycle as her mother, and repeatedly impregnated to keep her lactating, until eventually she collapses after about 4- 5 years from exhaustion. She is then sent to slaughter for meat, because the dairy industry is the meat industry.
"A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”
Plant-based milks are also naturally lactose-free — great news for around 65% of adults worldwide who have some degree of lactose intolerance—and cholesterol-free because lactose and cholesterol are found in animal products only. Dairy-alternative milks also tend to have fewer calories and less fat—a glass of milk contains 120 calories compared to cashew milk which has 25 calories.
Only a decade ago your only non-dairy milk choice was soy (if you were lucky). Today there is a variety of different plant-based milks to choose from, with more options on the way. Impossible Foods is currently developing their own non-dairy milk, as are numerous other food tech start-ups, catering to increasing consumer demand for dairy alternatives in a market which is anticipated to exceed USD $35 billion by 2026.
So, for those of us who have the choice—and those for whom lactose allergies and intolerance have left them with no choice— if you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint, or want a cruelty-free option, plant-based milk is the way to go.
Here are ten plant-based milk alternatives to try out. And what's better is that you can easily make many of these milks at home!
If possible, source locally made plant-based products as they may result in a smaller carbon footprint than products that have had to be transported a long way.
Avoid additives like sugar and thickeners, GMO ingredients, and palm oil.
Most genetically engineered foods have been created by Monsanto (now Bayer) to withstand Roundup, a widely-used glyphosate-based herbicide they manufacture. Glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. This herbicide is used as a desiccant on soy, non-organic oats, barley, and other cereals to dry the crop out before harvest.
Soy milk contains all essential amino acids, and is closest in nutrition to cow’s milk in terms of calories and protein—7-12 grams of protein per cup— while being low in unsaturated fats. There was once concern that soy, which contains isoflavones, a type of plant estrogen that is similar to human estrogen, could fuel breast cancer and endocrine disorders. Current research indicates that if consumed in moderation, soy isoflavones may lower cancer risk.
Parts of the Amazon rainforest are being deforested to produce soy plantations which is concerning, however 85% of soy beans are currently used to feed animals and produce oil, rather than to make soy milk. The crop is also often sprayed with herbicides like glyphosate. To avoid glyphosate contamination or GMOs foods, choose organic soy products.
Almond milk has less than a gram of protein per cup, but it boasts 50% more calcium than a cup of cow milk. It's also rich in Vitamin E, an antioxidant good for your brain, blood, and skin. It's a great addition to coffee, and can be used as a dairy substitute in cooking and baking, as well as ice cream.
Although growing almonds is water intensive—it takes about 74 litres of water to make one glass of almond milk, more than other plant based milks—it still requires less water to produce than a glass of cow milk (about 120 litres of water per glass of milk). However, as almond crops are concentrated almost entirely in California’s arid Central Valley, keeping up with demands for almonds and almond milk is also placing unsustainable pressures on US commercial beekeepers and their bees.
Cashew milk has unsaturated fats that are good for your heart, as well as anacardic acid, which may have anti-cancer effects. Cashews also contain lutein and zeaxanthin which benefit your eyes, and also contains a hefty dose of vitamin E, with 50 percent daily value in one glass.
It's a very creamy plant-based milk and is great for cheesy sauce bases and cooking, as well as making nut cheese. Like almond and oat milk, cashew milk is easy to make at home.
Derived from steel-cut oats blended in water, this milk is easy to make at home, and great for lattes due to its frothiness and creaminess. Oats are high in fibre and also contain thiamine and folate as well as magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, and copper, and they have a lower water impact than other plant based milk crops. If your oat milk is store bought make sure it doesn’t have any additives like sugar.
Although rice milk has very little nutritional value it’s a great option for those with allergies and intolerances to gluten, dairy, soy, and nuts. It's also inexpensive and widely available. Take note: rice crops do guzzle a lot of water, around 54 litres of water per glass.
Hemp is a sustainable plant as it is fast-growing, resistant to many diseases, and needs little water. It’s packed with protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, and naturally contains calcium. It has a nutty, grassy flavour which may take some getting used to.
Pea milk contains a comparable amount of protein to soy. Isolated pea protein is used to create a non-pea flavour, and is a common ingredient in many plant-based meat substitutes and protein powder too. It has a third of the saturated fat and 50% more calcium than cow’s milk.
Coconut is a versatile nut that can be used in cooking, baking, creams, coffee and ice cream. Although higher in calories than other plant-based options, it’s also chock-full of healthy saturated fats, vitamins, minerals (copper, folate, selenium, and magnesium), and amino acids.
However, coconut trees only grow in tropical climates where the pressure to meet global demand is causing exploitation of workers and destruction of rainforests. Choose Fair Trade coconut products.
With a rich and creamy flavour, macadamia milk is a fairly new addition to the plant based milk market. Although it still has fewer calories than cow’s milk, it is a little higher in fat than some other nut milks, with 50-70 calories per glass compared to 30-40 calories in a glass of almond milk. However, it is also high in Vitamin D, B12 and calcium.
Hazelnut milk has all the nuttiness and creaminess of almond milk, but without the environmental impacts of almond farming. Hazelnuts grow on trees that draw carbon from the atmosphere thereby helping to reduce greenhouse gases. Unlike almonds, which rely on commercial honeybees for pollination, hazelnuts are pollinated by the wind, and they also grow in moist climates where water is less of an issue.
It contains the highest amount of calories per glass than other nut milks with 70-100 calories per glass (dairy milk has 120 calories per glass), so if you're watching your calorie intake stick to the one latte.