Are plant-based milks really sustainable?
Sustainability expert Laura Gelder-Robertson discusses the environmental impact of plant-based milk production and why consumers should be wary of “carbon tunnel vision”.
From oat and almond to soy and coconut, demand for plant-based milks has skyrocketed in recent years.
In 2020, UK consumers spent nearly £400 million on them, up 32% on the year before. And the global market for oat milk alone is estimated to be worth almost half a billion dollars by 2026.
Consumer concerns over the environmental impact of dairy farming are thought to be fuelling this growth. But are plant-based milks really more sustainable?
Laura Gelder-Robertson is a member of Low Carbon Leaders, a network of low carbon businesses that aim to take their actions beyond “net zero”.
She warns that when it comes to determining the environmental impact of plant-based milks, people should be wary of “carbon tunnel vision”: a scenario in which lowering carbon emissions and achieving “net zero” become the focus at the expense of other sustainability goals.
For example, almond milk was once celebrated as the pinnacle of plant-based milk sustainability, as its trees are exceptional at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, time has shown that they require enormous amounts of water, despite growing in arid environments.
In the US, almond production is mostly concentrated in Central Valley, California, an area subject to drought conditions and an increasing frequency of wildfires. Growing crops that require huge amounts of irrigation draws from vital reservoirs and contributes to the desertification of our grasslands.
“If we turn our grasslands into kindling, they will be more susceptible to electrical storms and wildfires,” Laura explains.
The real impact of plant-based milk production
Almonds are, in fact, a prime example of the types of issues growing demand for plant-based milks may create. In spring 2019, 70% of the US commercial bee population was harnessed to pollinate almonds. By the end of the season, a third had died because of pesticides and a lack of diverse plant life.
Aside from the issues surrounding almond production, soybean production is implicated in the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest – the world’s largest carbon sink. The ability of the Amazon to absorb current emissions is already diminished, and Laura says it will reach a “climactic tipping point” within this decade.
The subsequent desertification of the land will drastically affect the global water cycle and weather will become increasingly erratic as a result.
Yet by far the largest driver of land use change in the Amazon is beef production, an industry that faces far less pressure than the dairy industry, despite involving the same species.
What’s more, most soy consumed in the UK is in fact sourced from Europe. Because European soy yields are higher than those in South America, less land is required.
In recent years, the scaling-up of oat milk production and the industrialisation of oat farming, has created massive monocultures in growing areas and a subsequent lack of biodiversity.
Despite this, oat farming promotes better soil health and decreased use of fertilisers. Oats can also be grown in milder climates, reducing concern over transport emissions.
It’s worth noting that 61% of greenhouse gas emissions from global food production are released at the farming stage of production. This means that any changes made at the transportation and packaging stages are negligible in comparison.
Furthermore, simply establishing transport and packaging infrastructure to support plant-based milks carries a carbon cost.
For example, the aluminium in the carton packaging of plant-based milks is a non-renewable and carbon hungry material, utilising complex and energy demanding processes and requiring sophisticated recycling capabilities.
However, all these examples are minor issues compared with the damage that dairy production has at a farming level. Ultimately, one IPCC report suggests that meat and dairy production simply can’t continue as it is.
UK dairy milk production is among the most sustainable in the world. Cattle drink mostly rainwater, reducing the risk of water scarcity. Dairy UK has achieved a 24% decrease in greenhouse emissions and water use since 2008, with an 18% improvement in energy efficiency.
Despite this, dairy milk has far bigger contributions to carbon emissions than plant-based milks. An average espresso emits 0.28kg of CO2, with a further 0.1 – 0.25kg of CO2 emitted from dairy milk.
What should consumers look for in plant-based milk brands?
Laura suggests that brands should be examined on a case-by-case basis to identify their relative merits.
While Swedish oat milk giant Oatly has found itself embroiled in controversy, it does make its positive environmental impact known. Conversely, Alpro is evasive, publishing case studies of environmental good-will measures in place of clear strategies and statistics.
For example, in its sustainability report entitled Confessions of an Oat Company, Oatly admitted that from 2019-2020, its carbon emissions jumped by 111% – outmatching its 81% increase in production over the same period.
Laura explains that the best brands address as many issues along the supply chain as possible. For instance, B Corp status signifies companies that are operating at the highest level of social and environmental standards.
“I’ll be looking for the niche player who’s going after the most ambitious net zero target but is also thinking about water scarcity,” she says.
This stance poses an interesting dilemma for the average consumer. Arguably Oatly’s most notorious controversy came when it received an investment of $200 million from Blackstone Growth, part-owner of two Brazilian firms that have deforested land in the Amazon, building a highway to support transportation of grain and soybeans.
In response, many consumers became hesitant about indirectly supporting private equity firms with perceived anti-environment agendas.
Oatly claimed that the deal was “all about sustainability opportunities”, setting the company up to “drive the plant-based movement further and steer global capital in a more sustainable direction”.
The exact direction of cash flow is ambiguous, especially for consumers.
When tackling the current nature of the food supply chain, however, the IPCC asserts that change cannot come from brands considered to lie on the periphery of the industry. So, when a top-tier investment firm backs a sustainable food company, a market-altering paradigm shift occurs, and sustainable food companies become viable options for the future.
No matter what metric is used, plant-based milks unequivocally reduce the environmental impact of a cup of coffee. Ultimately, this suggests that a widespread, permeating dietary shift is needed around the world – one with sustainability at its core.