What the M*lk?!

By Toryn Whitehead

Everyone loves milk. Whether it’s with your morning cuppa, in your cereal, or a glass before bed its a staple in most households. During 2019/20 15 billion litres of milk were produced in the UK alone, enough to cover the city and county of Cardiff in a ten centimetre layer of milk. All the while, plant-based alternative have soared in popularity, with oat milk sales increasing by a whopping 71% in 2019. In this minefield of milk, we must now look in the mirror and ask ourselves which milk is the greenest milk of them all?

Dairy Milk

Dairy milk is consumers top milk choice; however it also has the largest carbon footprint. According to the BBC’s climate change food calculator, one glass of dairy milk (200ml) every day for a year would contribute 229kg of CO2 to our carbon footprint. That’s the equivalent of driving a petrol car 585 miles! So why does dairy milk have such a large CF?

  1. Diet

Most cows are fed on a soya-based diet. Therefore, as demand for beef and milk has increased, demand for soya beans to make animal feed has also increased. Consequently in Brazil, one of the world’s leading producers, this has led to deforestation in regions such as the Amazon and the Cerrado. After a Guardian investigation, several UK supermarkets including Tesco and M&S admitted that they could not guarantee that soya from deforested areas was not present in their supply chains – despite making firm commitments to phase out its use.

2. Land & Water use

Producing a glass of dairy milk every day for a year uses 10 times as much land and water as it would to produce the same amount of oat milk. Rice and almond milk also use a lot of water but not nearly as much as dairy milk.

3. Ruminants

This basically means that cows release a significant amount of methane and nitrous oxides (greenhouse gases) by burping and in their manure. Manure management in particular is major contributors to dairy milks carbon footprint. Unsurprisingly this isn’t a problem with plant-based alternatives.

Sadly for dairy milk lovers it is the least climate-friendly option, however there are ways you can slash your milk carbon footprint. Find a local milk delivery service, my local one in south Manchester is Creamline Dairies. This has two important benefits. Firstly, your dairy milk (or oat milk) comes in glass bottles that are collected to be reused rather than recycled which is more environmentally friendly. Secondly, your dairy milk is coming from a local source which will almost certainly produce less GHG emissions from transport.

Plant-Based Alternatives

Soy milk: One glass of soy milk every day for a year would cost 71kg of CO2, the equivalent of driving a petrol car 182 miles. According to an Oxford University study in 2018, soy milk joins oat milk as the most climate-friendly. It also offers a protein content comparable with dairy milk, something other plant-based alternatives do not. The drawback with soy milk is that large swathes of land are deforested to grow it, due to the increasing demand for soybeans to make animal feed. If soy milk is your favourite, make sure to check that the soybeans have not been grown on deforested land on the carton or online.

Oat milk: One glass of oat milk every day for a year would cost 65kg of CO2, the equivalent of driving a petrol car 168 miles. Oats are grown in cooler climates that are not associated with deforestation in developing countries. Therefore, oat milk is the most climate-friendly option in the northern hemisphere. However, the UK’s most popular brand Oatley was accused of “selling its soul” due to an investment deal with Blackstone, which is headed up by Stephen Schwartzman who was a donor to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. Oatley responded saying that:

“If we just shut out the companies that may make less sustainable choices, we won’t give them the chance to improve and make more sustainable choices, so global capital will keep being steered in a less sustainable direction.”

Almond milk: One glass of almond milk every day for a year would cost 51kg of CO2, the equivalent of driving a petrol car 130 miles. Despite having the lowest annual GHG emissions, almond milk is guilty of guzzling more water than other plant-based alternatives. Furthermore, a large portion of almonds are grown in California, USA. This means that almond milk has to travel further to end up in our fridge, adding to its GHG emissions from transport.

Despite their positive benefits for our planet and our gut, plant-based alternatives are still stigmatised by some. I was certainly reluctant when my partner first introduced me to oat milk, however once I gave it a go I realised I actually preferred it. If you are weary like I was my top tip is to try the ‘whole’ or ‘barista’ version of oat milk since these are tastier than other types of oat milk in my opinion. However the bottom line is whichever plant-based alternative is most appealing to you will almost definitely be more environmentally friendly than dairy milk.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.