Milk Vs Mylk - Are Plant Based Alternatives Really More Sustainable?
Over the last 10 years, the global vegan community has grown considerably, with more people switching from meat and dairy to plant-based alternatives for health, ethical and environmental reasons. After spending seven months living in the UK and working in agriculture, I began to notice the growing popularity of soy and almond 'mylk' alternatives; two crops which don't grow in the temperate maritime climate of the United Kingdom. I started to wonder whether ditching the dairy in the UK and swapping traditional cow's milk for plant-based alternatives really was more sustainable and less resource intensive.
Today, there are at least 6+ dairy milk alternatives on the market, each coming with their own environmental consequences. The more I started to research the more I realised that how sustainable a product is, goes far beyond carbon emission vs food miles and that essentially, to answer such a question one would need to define ‘sustainable’. Is ‘sustainable’ the products carbon footprint and how resource intensive it is? Is it water use? The flow on effects of the product? The packaging? Or, does it go deeper and include how environmentally friendly the company is? You could go on and on about what aspects define sustainable until the question becomes too complex to answer, the line needs to be drawn somewhere. In order to discuss this topic, I’m going to attempt to form some kind of answer by comparing each products carbon footprint, water usage and environmental flow on effect.
Now, I’m not averse to the fact that we live in a world with a globalised food industry. I don’t think that we shouldn’t be allowed to eat food that can’t be grown where we live; I myself am guilty of consuming various exotic foods that don’t grow in my part of South Australia or even the country at all. However, when it come’s to switching to an alternative for so called ‘environmental’ reasons, I think it’s important to understand the impact of the food that you’re not only switching from, but also for what you’re switching to. The milking of dairy cows in Great Britain and central/northern Europe may well date back to the Neolithic ages, 6,000 years ago and It’s no surprise. With rolling green pastures for as far as the eye can see, Britain presents a quintessential image of a rural countryside. However, British farming isn’t all that it used to be. In the last 20 or so years the number of dairy farms has dropped considerably from 35,000 to less that 14,000, for a number of reasons. A core issue being that unless dairy farmers switch to a more industrialised indoor method of farming, they may as well give up the game as they’re selling milk for less that what it costs them to produce it.
The idea of an indoor agricultural system for livestock not only presents an ethical dilemma but also puts the environment at a greater risk of soil and water pollution since run off often builds up in surrounding fields, contaminating arable land and seeping into waterways. Furthermore, since the cows are no longer grazing for their food it’s grown elsewhere, accounting for a significant proportion of agricultural land that could otherwise be used for grazing or other agricultural production. This in turn can contribute to land degradation (soil erosion and deficiency), deforestation, water stress, pollution, and a loss of biodiversity. Not only this, but by rearing dairy cattle indoors, farmers are able to increase herd size, meaning a rise in the amount greenhouse gas emissions of methane (from manure and digestion) and nitrous oxide, hence an overall increase to milks carbon footprint. The question still remains as to whether it really is more sustainable and environmentally friendly to switch to alternatives like almond, soy and coconut in a climate zone that cannot grow these crops. So, while these particular alternatives have a less intensive carbon footprint in terms of production, their primary ingredient has most likely travelled a distance, meaning that the item has food miles. With all this in mind however, if we’re comparing the carbon footprint, dairy alternatives still come out on top as the ‘better’ pick.
To go a little bit deeper and beyond carbon footprint, let’s look at the environmental impact of almond milk. Currently up to 82% of the globes almonds hail from California, where 800,000 hectares of almond groves sprawl from Los Angeles to Sacramento. Each nut takes approximately 3.7 litres of water to produce, with the mass orchards accounting for 10% of the states annual agricultural water use. Which is a huge amount considering that most of California has been in severe drought for a number of years now. The extensive water usage isn’t the only problem with state’s colossal almond farming, there’s a slight stitch up when it comes to pollination too.
Each year, in mid-February more than 30 different varieties of almond trees start to bloom over two weeks. Every blossom on each tree needs to receive pollen grains from a different variety in order to produce nuts. Since there are more than 90 billion trees coming into bloom over this time and mature flowers are only receptive to pollination for five days, farmers cannot rely on wind alone to spread pollen if they want their trees to be as productive as possible. Considering the lack of biodiversity in these massive mono crops it is also not realistic to rely on native pollinating insects like beetles, butterfly’s and bumblebee’s because there are simply not enough of them. So every year, during the two-week almond bloom more than 1 million boxes containing 31 billion European honeybees from all over America are transported to California’s central valley to begin a mass pollination. Some researchers and beekeepers believe that the effects of migratory beekeeping are one of the primary causes of colony collapse disorder (the mysterious disappearance of entire bee colonies) for a number of reasons. With so many bee’s colliding mid-air and in hives, they’re more likely to spread disease, mites, fungi and viruses to one another. Not only this but forcing them to feed off of one type of crop means that they are deprived of valuable nutrients that a diverse diet provides. More often than not the bee’s require supplemental feeding prior to the season to ensure strength and higher levels of nutrition. Currently the US is losing 30% of its honey bee colonies each year.
So, while on one hand almond milk may be less carbon intensive in terms of production, there is a whole other realm of environmental degradation that occurs from the mass production of this alternative’s main ingredient. To summarise, for someone living in the UK, in my opinion it would theoretically be more logical and sustainable to buy a small amount of unprocessed, organic milk from a local dairy farmer than to switch to almond mylk. However, given the rising demand for dairy-free alternatives, switching to a less intensive plant based mylk, oat for example, may well shape up to be the better choice (for future discussion). I’m yet to find out.
To bring things a little closer to home, I decided to look into Australia’s current almond production and how it compared to the US. Australia is the world’s second largest producer, contributing 7.7% to the global production and exports three quarters of its almonds to 50 countries with Europe being the largest consumer. There are almost 30,000 hectares of almonds grown across Victoria (78%), SA (15%) and NSW (7%). Each year in August, 70,000 honeybee hives are transported across the three states to assist with pollination. Whilst Australia is a relatively smaller operation, the risks of migratory beekeeping are the same and I believe that the future of this practice is a conversation that needs to be had.
At the end of the day, it’s far more difficult than I originally anticipated to determine whether or not traditionally cow’s dairy is more or less sustainable than its dairy free alternatives. However, the more we know and consider all aspects of where our food comes from, the more consciously we can consume. Whilst I don’t believe any of these products are inherently ‘bad’, perhaps it’s just a matter of consuming less, as the mass production of dairy and non-dairy products appears to be common theme in the downfall of their sustainability. I also think it’s important to acknowledge and understand that not everyone switching to non-dairy products are doing it for sustainability, ethical considerations and personal allergies/intolerances are significant factors for many making the switch. At the risk of this piece becoming unbearably long (and take me even longer to finish) I’ve decided to wrap it up here and split this discussion into several posts. I look forward to continuing this serious in order to discuss other alternatives to cow’s dairy such as goat milk, coconut, oat and soy mylks.
*This piece is merely my opinion that I have formulated based on facts and papers that I have read. I do not claim to be right about everything. If there are aspects of this piece you would like to dispute, please feel free to start a conversation below in a respectful manner.
When not busy in the kitchen cooking vegetables you'll find Karri busy growing them, painting them or (if all else fails) thinking about them.