Milk alternatives have come a long way and the shift to more plant based milks is impacting the entire food supply chain. Think about the implications of people eating less animal products. The shift means we need less animals so there are less animals to feed and water. Ironically, much of the food grown and fed to animals is the same food we eat so using plant-milk cuts out the middle man and cow.
One of the big shifts in farming with more plant focused consumption is the simplification of the supply chain. Food previously destined to be fed to animals (98% of the animal water footprint is food), that were in turn consumed by humans, is now being consumed directly by humans.
Numerous pieces of research show greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the big measure of the footprint of any food, mostly in the initial conversion of land to farm use and then its ongoing farm activity.
The impacts of the lowest GHG impact animal products (pigs, poultry, fish) typically exceed those of any vegetable substitute. Nuts are even able to claim carbon offsetting because the carbon is stored in the trees as they absorb carbon and produce useful woody biomass at the end of their lives.
GHGs aren't the only measure however and sometimes can overshadow other important considerations. And while taste, allergies and tolerances largely drive plant-milk choices, here is some other information that may help you decide which plant-milk is best for you.
In terms of land use, every litre of cow’s milk uses 8.9 square metres (sqm) per year, compared to 0.8sqm for oat, 0.7sqm for soy, 0.5sqm for almond and 0.3sqm for rice milk.
Almonds and rice are the biggest users of water. Water use is comparatively closer for cow’s milk: 628 litres of water are used to produce every litre of dairy, compared to 371 litres for almond, 270 litres for rice, 48 litres for oat and 28 litres for soy milk.
Almonds however are an excellent example of where you need to think twice, especially for non organic, irrigated bee pollinated almonds like those in California. These large scale almond groves are doused in a number of chemicals, but mostly the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup) which has been shown to be lethal to bees, among other animals.
Rice from certain parts of the world is known to contain arsenic so choose your milk source carefully. Levels of arsenic in rice vary dependent upon where it it grown. Pakistan and India produce rice with the lowest levels of arsenic.
Monoculture farming is where one single crop is grown across a wide area of land. The problem with monoculture farming depletes the soil’s fertility, limits the diversity of insects, and increases the risk of diseases and pest infection. Crops like Oats are typically monoculture farms and are also typically grown with glyphosate-based pesticides.
plant-milks are generally a better choice than animal milks so you are already miles ahead in having made that choice, at least for part of your diet. You are also influencing the way food is grown. The more of us who eat or drink plant based milks, the more food is grown for us instead of for animals to feed us. Much shorter supply chain - and there is more governance over what you can feed a human to an animal, so you are 'doubling' your positive impact.
As always, the fastest route to mostly getting a decision right is to buy organic. It doesn't solve a water problem for instance, but at least the water its using won't be contaminated and the decision has more chance of saving both you and the planet from a multitude of potential ills and environmental costs.
Arsenic in rice around the world is widely reported and Australia is no exception. In addition, in Australia, a 2020 report by an RMIT PhD student found 75% of Australian rice-based products tested had concentrations of arsenic that exceeded the EU guideline for safe rice consumption for babies and toddlers. He cited the EU standard because in his view, the Australian safety levels don't separate inorganic and organic arsenic so aren't clearly reported. Further, the food guidelines have not taken into account the increased consumption of rice along with other non gluten products.
"THE AUSTRALIAN RICE GUIDELINES ARE FOR TOTAL ARSENIC (ORGANIC AND INORGANIC) AND SET A MAXIMUM LEVEL OF 1MG/KG. THIS IS MORE THAN 3 TIMES HIGHER THAN THE STANDARD FOR TOTAL ARSENIC SET BY THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION OF 0.3MG/KG.
RATHER THAN LOOKING AT TOTAL ARSENIC, THE EUROPEAN UNION GUIDELINE FOR INFANTS AND YOUNG CHILDREN FOCUSES SPECIFICALLY ON INORGANIC ARSENIC AND SETS A MAXIMUM LEVEL OF 0.1MG/KG."
Most reports say that basmati rice from India or Pakistan has the lowest levels of arsenic.
Most plant-milks are sold in the long life section of shops and supermarkets so this option is easy to execute. Most Australian states also include this packaging in the 10c refund scheme so make sure you use it! Bear in mind that plastic packaging can almost double the carbon footprint of your milk so avoid it if you can.
Hemp is an environmental game-changer. It is the most versatile and least invasive of all plant-milk options. All parts of the plant are used as seeds are processed for oil and milk and the plant is used for construction, textiles, paper or hemp-based plastics. Hemp does use a bit of water - more water than soy, but less than almonds. It does however have deep roots which improves the soil structure and reduces the presence of fungi, which speaks to it being highly resistant to diseases and generally uses very few herbicides and pesticides.
As plant-milks have expanded, so have their offering with coffee. For coffee-lovers, the Perfect Daily Grind says Oat Milk is the best for taste as it has the most neutral flavour and doesn't overpower the coffee. Almond has overtaken Soy in recent times and is popular, but can be bitter if not managed well. Coconut, Hazelnut and Soy have strong flavour profiles so tend to take over the coffee, even as coconut is rich and creamy. Hemp is watery and Cashew doesn't foam well.
If you have ever wondered how a plant-milk becomes a Barista Plant-Milk, it is because stabilizers are often added to allow the milk to better handle heat and foaming, so read the ingredients list. If you’re looking minimise additives, get a version without any stabilizers, even if it means a flatter drink.
Images: Main image: Miyoko Creamery sign in NYC / Others: Unsplash | TQ / Nathan Dumlao