Is plant-based milk really environmentally-friendly?

The trend of switching from animal products to plant-based products is also emerging in Switzerland – although still slower than in other countries. Plant-based products such as milk alternatives are getting more and more popular and consumers are having a better choice than couple of years ago. Nowadays you can find milk alternatives in the shelves made of soy, almonds, oats, coconuts, rice, cashews and many more. Due to my curious nature, I started to ask myself if drinking milk alternatives which are not produced in Switzerland are really better for my carbon footprint? And if so, which plant-based milk has the lowest environmental impact? Having a look at the swiss water footprint, agricultural products account for 81% of the total water footprint. Of those agricultural products, milk consumption is representing 10% of it – right behind meat, crop and sugar.

A study conducted in 2017 by ESU-services Ltd., a company which is doing research in the fields of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), shows that whole milk is connected to a larger environmental impact than plant-based alternatives. The production of raw milk and its livestock farming is the main reason for the higher damage to our planet compared to vegan alternatives. Additionally, chilling is unavoidable compared to plant-based milk and that implies an additional impact on the environment.

Environmental impact of plant-based milk alternatives compared to cow’s milk. Source: ESU-services Ltd (2017). http://esu-services.ch/fileadmin/download/wenzel-2017-LCA-vegan-drinks.pdf

Among plant-based options, almond drink is the environmental looser. The huge amount of water needed for the cultivation of the plants is a major factor – around 6’098 litres of water is needed to produce 1 litre of almond milk. More than 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in California which was fighting droughts for the last decade. The transport is – also in the case of rice drink – a second factor of the higher overall impact.

Concerning soy milk, it is important to differentiate where the soy comes from. People who consume soy are often accused of harming the environment due to the soy-linked deforestation in the amazon. Whether soy consumption harms the environment depends on the location of its cultivation. It goes without saying that the huge monocultures in South America – mainly cultivated as animal feed – is an ecological disaster. In fact, most of the soy milk we consume here has its roots in Europe. Alpro, the European market leader and its organic subsidiary company Provamel have reintroduced soy bean cultivation in France to source non-GMO soy beans and building shorter supply chains towards a more sustainable agriculture. As shown in the graph, the production of 1 litre soy milk consumes less water, less land and less CO2 compared to cow’s milk.

Soy milk compared to cow’s milk Source: Alpro, Sustainability Report (2018). https://www.alpro.com/corporate/en/sustainability-report

What about oat milk? “The future is oats” is written in the sustainability report 2017 of Oatly, a Swedish company producing oat milk. The greenhouse gas emissions of oat milk production is 80% lower than cow’s milk. Over 95% of the oats are cultivated, manufactured and most of the products even packaged in Sweden.

Oat Milk vs. Cow’s Milk Source: Oatly, Sustainability Report (2017) https://www.oatly.com/uploads/attachments/cjlnzy1v4000k1vqp2eqbsujq-sustainability-report-2017-eng.pdf

In Switzerland, oat drinks are usually produced in Germany (Alnatura) or France (Coop Karma) – and if you want it from oats cultivated in Switzerland to save the packaging, you can easily make it at home. If I made you curious, go to https://minimalistbaker.com/make-oat-milk/  and check the recipe – it’s quite simple!

Generally speaking, it can be said that consuming plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk has a much lower environmental impact – especially in the case of oat milk. If we want to go a step further, we can also think of alternatives cultivated, processed and packaged in Switzerland. An article about food scientists in Sweden who started to produce milk made of potatoes recently caught my attention (if you are interested go to http://sciencenordic.com/scientists-are-making-smoothies-potato-milk). After some investigation about this, I found out that this was recently discussed on “Schweizer Bauer” – a platform for swiss agriculture. Who knows, maybe we are soon able to drink locally cultivated potato milk to lower our environmental impact even more.. until then, we continue producing oat milk with swiss cultivated oats ourselves!

 

Sources:

Alnatura, 2018. Produktinformation Haferdrink ungesüsst. Online: https://www.alnatura.de/de-de/alnatura-produkte/produktsuche/bio-haferdrink-ungesuesst-1l (10.10.2018)

Alpro, 2018. Sustainability Summary. Online: https://www.alpro.com/corporate/en/sustainability-report (02.10.2018)

Coop at home, 2018. Bio Hafer Drink. Online: https://www.coopathome.ch/de/supermarkt/milchprodukte-eier/milch/spezialmilch/karma-bio-hafer-drink/p/5783015 (11.10.2018)

Naylor, T., 2018. Ditch the almond milk: why everything you know about sustainable eating is probably wrong. The Guardian, 05.09.2018. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2018/sep/05/ditch-the-almond-milk-why-everything-you-know-about-sustainable-eating-is-probably-wrong

Oatly, 2017. Sustainability Report. Online: https://www.oatly.com/uploads/attachments/cjlnzy1v4000k1vqp2eqbsujq-sustainability-report-2017-eng.pdf (03.10.2018)

Schweizer Bauer, 2017. Milchalternative aus Kartoffeln. Online: http://preview.schweizerbauer.ch/pflanzen/forschung/milchalternative-aus-kartoffeln-39142.html (01.10.2018)

ScienceNordic, 2017. Scientists are making Smoothies with potato milk. Online: http://sciencenordic.com/scientists-are-making-smoothies-potato-milk (01.10.2018)

Wenzel, P. & Jungbluth, N., 2017. The environmental Impact of vegan drinks compared to whole milk, Schaffhausen: ESU-Services. Online: http://esu-services.ch/fileadmin/download/wenzel-2017-LCA-vegan-drinks.pdf (09.10.2018)

WWF Schweiz, 2012. Der Wasser-Fussabdruck Schweiz, Zürich. Online: https://www.google.ch/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwics8HKjo3eAhUly4UKHSCfA9cQFjAAegQICBAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.blw.admin.ch%2Fdam%2Fblw%2Fde%2Fdokumente%2FNachhaltige%2520Produktion%2FUmwelt%2FWasser%2FDer%2520Wasser-Fussabdruck%2520der%2520Schweiz.pdf.download.pdf%2FDer%2BWasser-Fussabdruck%2Bder%2BSchweiz.pdf&usg=AOvVaw0mKfN2dQQCqYup-HY8aJIB (10.10.2018)

One Reply to “Is plant-based milk really environmentally-friendly?”

  1. You gave yourself a rather difficult task for a blog entry, but you fulfilled it perfectly! Very interesting and well written post!

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