'Februdairy', plant milk, and our environment

| 25th February 2020
Glass of soya milk with soya beans

Which plant-based milk is best for the planet? 

What’s so bad about dairy? And which plant-based milk is best for our planet?

No matter what spin the dairy industry might offer up this month, it does not change the fact that cutting it out would be incredibly beneficial for our environment.

Veganuary this year has been another resounding success. And so the dairy industry has hit back, using its very best public relations minds and creatives. And so Februdairy was born. And so, we're sad to report, it rather quickly, silently but painfully died.

But there was a positive - if unintended - outcome to this ill-fated campaign: it has increased the number of media outlets that want to compare the ethical and environmental impacts of dairy milk and the many plant-based alternatives.

For many of us, particularly readers of The Ecologist, the proliferation and benefits of plant milks may be common knowledge. However, in the wider public sphere, many are beginning to ask: what’s so bad about dairy? And which plant-based milk is best for our planet?  

Normalisation

One thing you certainly won’t be hearing from the dairy industry this month is that it accounts for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, over half of which is methane.

Believe it or not, producing a glass of dairy milk results in close to three times the greenhouse gas emissions than that of non-dairy alternatives.

No matter what spin the dairy industry might offer up this month, it does not change the fact that cutting it out would be incredibly beneficial for our environment.

The issue facing us is that most of the population have grown up with it from a very young age. It’s been embedded into the public psyche as normal and natural, when the reality is it’s anything but.

The normalisation of dairy, however, doesn’t mean we can’t make a change. If you want to make your life more compassionate and sustainable, looking into the plethora of plant-based milks on offer is a great start.

Footprint

While most of the arguments are disingenuous, it’s important to be aware of the fact that all products we consume have an environmental footprint, however small.

Many in the dairy industry like to point to soya and almonds as prime examples of vegan hypocrisy on the climate emergency – even though most of the UK’s soya imports are still for animal feed.

Likewise, almonds have been castigated in the press for their high water usage. Despite this drawback, it’s worth noting that producing a glass of almond milk still requires considerably less water than producing a glass of dairy milk.

It appears that these arguments are often made in bad faith, with the intention of discrediting the boom that we’re seeing in plant-based industries.  

You can sleep soundly knowing that whether you have a bit of almond milk in your coffee this morning or not, you are still doing your bit for the environment by avoiding dairy products. That being said, if you want to reduce your environmental footprint as much as you possibly can when purchasing a plant-based milk, the mighty almond may not be for you.

Plant

Admittedly, it’s difficult to pick a particular plant milk as top of the sustainability chart, simply as there are so many variables at play – particularly the fact that different manufacturers will inevitably have differing environmental footprints.

However, I would argue that on face value, oat milk is one of the most sustainable options. Not only that, but its recent surge in popularity means that it is easily accessible when other alternatives might not be, making it a leader for sustainability in the sector.

In terms of CO2 emissions and water use it’s very efficient, not to mention the fact that it can be grown in more temperate climates, which presents a huge opportunity for British farmers.

The magnitude of demand, particularly here in the UK where sales spiked by 70% last year, means that even plant-milk is embarking on a positive, sustainable direction of travel when it comes to environmental impact.

What is important to remember, though, is that all plant-based milks are considerably better for the environment than dairy. So whichever option you prefer, it won’t be the end of the world – figuratively and literally!

This Author

Matt Turner is the media and PR officer for The Vegan Society. Check out our short videos: dieticians provide advice on how to get the most out of a vegan diet.

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