When I first started switching to plant-based foods, there weren’t many options for nondairy milk. That has changed – but as more plant milk will be selected from today, it is also important to look at its environmental effects.
After all, while the dairy industry has found a bad rap that is over-utilizing resources, that does not mean that plant-based milk has no environmental impact (1, 2, 3Trusted Source).
In my search for the most environmentally friendly plant milk, I found that different types have different traits depending on the natural resources and the emission of greenhouse gases.
This article examines the natural effects of a variety of plant extracts and provides tips on choosing the most friendly options.
When comparing the environmental impact of plant milk, it is important to understand what resources the various plants need to grow and the steps they can leave.
A recent study that used data from more than 10,000 farms around the world to compare the natural effects of milk, soy, almond, oat, and rice milk concluded that any nondairy milk is better in the world than milk (4Trusted Source) .
Evaluating the environmental impacts of nondairy milk
In fact, milk can have a threefold effect on greenhouse gases and require nine times as much land to produce. Unlike dairy milk, plant milk does not require natural resources to raise animals (4Trusted Source).
However, crops used for commercial milk still need limited resources such as land and water. Their production also releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, contributing to global warming (5).
However, all plant milk has different benefits and risks. The best choice can depend on which environmental factors are most important to you and the data available.
Currently, there is no solid scientific method to influence the environment of plant milk. However, it is best to avoid almond milk and rice if you are worried about water use, and soy and oat milk if you are worried about land use.
Hemp, pea, and coconut milk may be the best options.
Along with beef cattle, soybeans are one of the leading causes of deforestation in the Amazon due to the amount of land needed to meet demand. One study found that 4 cups (1-liter) of soy milk require about 1 square mile (2.6 square km) of land per year (4Trusted Source).
However, most soybean crops are grown to feed livestock and produce biofuels, not to make soy milk for humans. In fact, some sources suggest that a very small percentage of the world’s soybeans are planted for human consumption (6Trusted Source).
The United States alone is responsible for 35% of global soybean production. The good news is that the Amazon Soy Moratorium, an agreement for grain sellers not to buy soy grown using the recently deforested land, has led to a reduction in deforestation (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
There are also some soy dairy companies, such as Silk, that claim to use only live beans grown in the United States, which eliminates the Amazon deforestation feature.
While soy may require a lot of land, it does provide some benefits. Like other legumes, soybean plants help to fix nitrogen in the soil, which reduces the need to use nitrogen fertilizer (10Trusted Source).
Almond milk is one of the most water-soluble plant milk, requiring much more water than soy or oat milk. A study sponsored by the Almond Board of California estimated that it takes 3.2 liters of water to produce one California almond (11).
In another study comparing water pollution in nine Australian plants, almonds had the highest concentrations – in addition to apples, grapes, tomatoes, oranges, peaches, cherries, potatoes, and carrots (12Trusted Source).
In fact, almonds have used so much water that the authors recommend that they are no longer grown (12Trusted Source).
In addition, about 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, which has experienced severe drought in recent years, which continues to threaten water resources.
When it comes to earth resources, research shows that nuts need less than oatmeal but more than rice (4Trusted Source).
The hemp plant is friendly because it has a high yield and all parts of it can be used. The leaves and seeds are used to make oil and milk, and the stalks and roots are the building materials, the fibers of the fabric, and the hemp paper and plastics (14, 15).
In addition, hemp naturally resists disease and provides shade that helps reduce weeds. These means that fewer herbcides and pesticides are needed to grow hemp. Their deep roots can also nourish the soil they grew (15).
Hemp milk itself has several health benefits.
Rice milk provides a large amount of greenhouse gases. This is because rice fields are known to contain bacteria that emit large amounts of methane when it is flooded, a common practice for rice crops (Reliable Source 16, Trust 17 Source, 18Trusted Source).
Not surprisingly, rice also needs a lot of water to produce. However, when it comes to land resources, rice uses less soy, oats, and almonds (4Trusted Source).
In addition, rice is known to contain high levels of arsenic, which can contaminate nearby waterways (19).
Oats are often grown as monoculture crops, which means that they are the only crop grown in the same country over and over again.
Monoculture reduces the diversity of insects in the surrounding ecosystem, which can lead to an increase in pests and ultimately the use of pesticides. Monocultures can also deplete soil nutrients, reducing plant fertility (20 Reliable Source, 21Trusted Source).
In addition, oats are often grown with glyphosate-based pesticides, which may promote the growth and spread of glyphosate-resistant bacteria that adversely affect plants, insects and animals.