Dairy vs Plant-Based Milk

13th February 2024

Is Plant-Based milk actually better for the planet?

We have already started to break down our opinion on the grand fight of dairy vs plant-based milks. Our blog, Which Milk is Best for Coffee, explores all the benefits and drawbacks of all these kinds of milk, discussing flavours, how they are made and how they react when added to a hot cup of brew. Nowadays, people choose more dairy alternatives based on taste, dietary requirements, and how good it is for the planet. With the rise of veganism and awareness of dairy intolerances, coffee shops have started to offer many alternative milks in store for their customers. This has also caused an increase in plant-based milk. Today, we will be looking at whether these plant-based milks are more beneficial for the planet’s sustainability. For years, the farming of cows has been publicised as being bad for the earth due to the methane that cows release, but are plant-based any better? Rumour has it almond milk uses a lot of freshwater to create a glass of milk…but is this fact or myth? Let’s find out, shall we?


Plant-Based Milks

1. Land Use

Cow’s Milk

It probably won’t surprise you, but dairy farms have the highest land usage out of oat, soy, almond and rice milk. Now, we aren’t talking about double the amount of land; we mean a whopping ten times more! This is pretty crazy. The short of it is that livestock needs access to plenty of green pasture to graze, as grass is a significant part of their diet. However, many large-scale companies today favour zero-graze production, which sees all cows raised in indoor housing without access to fields. They are fed using soy, grain, and hay-based livestock feed.

Luckily, many traditional small-scale farmers will always try to get their herd outside for at least the spring-summer seasons, if not all year round. This helps to prevent bacterial infection across the herd, such as mastitis, an inflammation of the udder, as unsanitary environments and bedding can cause this. By keeping the cows in poorly designed indoor housing all year round, this only increases. Large-scale warehouses, as do the milking stations, also require a lot of space. Having so much land used for dairy farming also negatively affects the environment as they use land that could otherwise be used as a natural ecosystem. These are ideal for combating climate change, as they capture carbon, reducing the overall impact we are causing the planet.

Plant-Based Milk

Oat, soy, almond and rice milk use substantially less land than dairy. This may surprise you, as you’d expect crops to use up a sizable amount of land, as you need a good space of outdoor space for agricultural practice. This is true, but with plants, you can get more produce per square meter when compared to livestock, as they are using up every inch of space to grow.

Even though this shows promising signs for the future of the planet’s sustainability, evidence has supported that soy farming has become destructive in countries like Brazil. Due to the high demand for soy, sections of the Amazon Rainforest are being cleared to make room for farmland. However, soy milk isn’t to blame; staggeringly, 95% of Brazilian soy is used for animal feed. Globally, more than three-quarters of soy harvests are used for this purpose, with only 7% of soy directly harvested consumed by humans. Which animals get fed soy as feed? You guessed it, dairy farm cows!

2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Cow’s Milk

This is where you probably know the answer yourself! Livestock production, primarily cows, produces 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with just one cow releasing 600 litres of methene daily through burping! Most hooved animals (goats, cows, etc.) produce much methane because their stomachs have four compartments. It is also caused by their grass-based diet, which builds up gasses during digestion.

Methane is a central contributor to global warming, causing more damage than carbon dioxide. However, it is a flow gas, which takes 9-10 years to break down, compared to CO2, which can take 300-1000 years. Therefore, even though it adds to the warming effect of our climate, if appropriately managed, it will cause us fewer long-term side effects than the burning of fossil fuels.

Plant-based Milk

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, plant-based milks win again! Plants are Planet Earth’s champions, as they store and use carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and produce oxygen. Nut-based milk like almonds and hazelnuts are at the top of the leaderboard as they grow on trees and natural carbon sequesters, reducing greenhouse emissions rather than increasing them.

However, the unassuming winner is…oat milk!! This milk has the most sustainable aspects, as it can grow in cooler climates; the largest producer of oats for oat milk in 2022 was Canada. The crop is also being sourced from Sweden and Belgium. This means there is no fear of deforestation in developing countries, like soy milk in Brazil. Wahoo!

3. Freshwater Use

Cow’s Milk

Every litre of cow’s milk requires 628 litres of water to generate; why is this so crazy high? Well, fundamentally, cows, like most living things, need water to stay alive. Milk also consists of 87% water, so much of what a cow is drinking goes straight to milk production. If their water levels dip, so will their milk supply, so keeping them hydrated is essential.

Plant-based Milk

Overall, the plant-based milks win this battle once again. However, there has been some controversy regarding one plant-based alternative. Almond milk has been the latest plant-based product to be slammed for being worse for the environment than people may think. This is because it requires 371 litres of water to create 1 litre of milk. Once harvested, the nuts must be soaked, skins removed and blended in water before being strained to leave you with the milk.

This is dramatically more when compared to the other plant-based milks such as oat, which only needs 48 litres of water per 1 litre. As you can see, this is a significant difference, and a lot of people have started to choose oat over almond milk due to this fact. However, in correlation, it only requires half of what cow’s milk needs, so it is still more sustainable than dairy.

Overall, I think it’s safe to say that plant-based milk wins this battle. Sorry, cows, but you just aren’t as green (literally!).

Have you recently cut out dairy and are unsure which milk alternative to use? We have the perfect blog for you!

Best Plant-Based Milk for Coffee


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