In recent years, the ‘milk market’ has seen a rising trend in consumers switching from purchasing dairy milk to nut and other plant-based milks such as almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, and cashew milk. As a frequent consumer of almond milk (my personal favorite is Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Unsweetened Original Almond Milk, or on occasion their chocolate almond milk), I was interested in looking at how the carbon footprint of almond milk production and consumption compares to that of dairy milk. Upon further research, I came to find not only large differences in the carbon footprints of almond and dairy milk, but an ongoing debate over the legitimacy of plant-based milks having the title of milk to begin with.
Almond milk is produced by blending almonds with water (and any other necessary ingredients that manufacturers use), and then straining out the almond pulp. To those who claim that drinking almond milk is the answer to saving the environment, critics remind them that the production of almond milk uses a very large quantity of water. According to the magazine Mother Jones, it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce 1 almond! But, reports from SoDelicious, a manufacturer of almond and coconut milk products, have proclaimed that farmers have been working hard to reduce the amount of water needed to grow almonds and produce almond milk. The Almond Board in California has donated money for the purpose of helping farmers to do research to find methods of improving their techniques in reducing the amount of water they use when producing almonds. According to their reports, the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds has been reduced by 33% since 1994. The almond farming industry continues to make efforts to reduce their water consumption, while the dairy industry not only uses large amounts of water, but also is one of the highest industry contributors to green house gas emissions.
The dairy industry is responsible for 4% of all total greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans, according to Georgina Gustin of Inside Climate News. Gustin describes the effects of dairy consumption in her article, noting that for every gallon of milk consumed, 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere. Research done by Life Cycle Associates mentioned in the article describes that the production of 1 liter of almond milk produces 396 grams of carbon dioxide, compared to 1,467 grams of carbon dioxide produced from 1 liter of dairy milk. While Gustin does note that the dairy industry plans to make efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020, the production and consumption of dairy milk has a significantly larger carbon footprint than almond milk. Despite the heavy water usage toll of almond milk production, the nut milk is a much more ecologically conscious choice than dairy milk when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the most interesting parts of the almond milk versus dairy milk debate is whether or not almond milk (and other plant-based milks) should even be able to be labeled and sold as “milks”. According to Gustin’s article, members of the National Milk Producers Federation do not approve of plant-based milks being labeled as “milks”, as they are using the positive nutritional branding of milk and using it for a product other than dairy milk, as the name was originally intended for. According to the federation, plant-based milk manufacturers are unfairly capitalizing on this. The DAIRY PRIDE was also brought before Congress, which would enforce stricter regulations on what products could be labeled as milks.
Overall, I think the debate between the ecological and nutritional benefits of dairy milk and plant-based milks is very interesting. While I will continue to be an almond milk consumer, I plan to try different kinds of plant-based milks such as coconut milk or cashew milk, as these use far less water and have low greenhouse gas emissions during their respective productions.
Sources used when writing this blog post include