I turned vegetarian nearly 2 years ago now, in a bid to reduce my environmental impact on the world*. Since that fateful day, I’ve become much more clued up on which foodstuffs have a high environmental impact, and which ones don’t. The idea of having an eco-conscious diet has actually even been given a name during that period too: Ecotarianism.
(Check out our friend Naomi’s super great blog on that exact subject right here).
So the image above paints a pretty clear picture: animal products and by-products have much higher carbon footprints than vegetables and grains. That means, that in terms of climate change: Carnivore<<Omnivore<<Pescatarian<<Vegetarian<<Vegan
Now, I have been trying to go vegan. I really have, but this one is a slow burner. I mean, my younger sister is a patisserie chef, and I’m not sure I could survive forevermore without cheese… so what’s a girl to do?
I decided, therefore, that I would try and get replacements for eggs and dairy, whenever I genuinely couldn’t go without them. Over the last few months I have thus been enlightened by such delightful things as soya yoghurts and aquafaba (chickpea water) which apparently can be used as an ‘egg replica’ whilst baking.
…Whoever discovered that must be an absolute nutter.
Anyhow. That left me with milk.
Now the image above shows that milk’s carbon footprint in the scheme of things ain’t all that bad; but surely, as a wannabe vegan, I should be replacing it with something plant based?
Unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple.
I realised that if I’m going to reduce my impact on the environment as a whole, carbon isn’t the only thing to think about. Water, land use, deforestation, habitat destruction, food miles… these problems are all hugely prevalent in the global agricultural industry, and if the difficult problem of “which milk should I put on my cereal?” (#veganproblems) is looked at holistically, then they all need to be taken into account.
Therefore, I’ve channeled my inner Sherlock Holmes and conducted a ‘full’ investigation into how good all of these milks really are…
You may know soy from it’s previous starring roles in Soy sauce, Tofu, and most recently; edamame beans, however it’s also notable for it’s golden globe as the original plant-based milk alternative.
Soy is, unbeknowst to some, 1 of the 3 most widely grown crops in the world: although according to the WWF, only a small percentage of that is used to feed humans directly, with the rest being fed to poultry, cattle and pigs.
In order to grow soy, you need huge swathes of land, and it is pretty water intensive too. Since 1960, soy production around the world has increased 10-fold, which has resulted in the mass devastation of rainforests and other delicate ecosystems in Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia.
Oh dear. Are any of the others any better?
According to The Guardian, almond milk is now the UK’s most popular milk alternative (overtaking the previous frontrunner soy, sorry soy). It’s a bit of a shame then, that to grow just 1 almond, you need 5 litres of water.. and that 70% of the world’s almonds are grown in drought-stricken California.
If you haven’t tried this yet: do. It’s delicious.
It has a pretty similar story to almonds though unfortunately. High water footprint. Sad.
Much like soy, rice is very intensively farmed and much of it is genetically modified. In addition, it is grown in paddy-fields, ergo suggesting you need quite a lot of water to produce it.
Milk you can get high on? Alas no. Hemp is a pretty hardy plant which doesn’t require intensive farming; therefore having a relatively low environmental footprint. YAY!
To note though: I think it tastes gross.
Much like hemp, coconut palms are made of strong stuff, and the plants themselves are able to produce multiple products from a single tree; meaning that the milk actually has a relatively low environmental impact. HURRAH.
And what if I just stick to plain old cow’s milk? Well, even if it’s local & organic, it has an extremely high water and carbon footprint attached to it: more so than any of the plant-based alternatives mentioned above. If you want to know more about the global dairy industry, enjoy this light reading (aka 98 page document) from the UN FAO.
So there we have it. Coconut milk is probably the best. Although I say probably because no-one has actually done any kind of scientific studies to compare them… so my ability to lead a sustainable milk-filled life is based purely on what I’ve found floating around on the fringes of the internet.
In a (coco)nutshell, this whole process has made me realise that pretty much nothing in the world of milk is perfect, and nothing is a ‘silver-bullet’ solution – much like sustainability as a whole. There’s always going to be a variety of challenges: and at different times and in different places, different solutions will be the right answer; but there is no “one size fits all” and we shouldn’t ever believe that there will be.
So for now, I’m going to take my coconut milk, forget this whole thing ever happened… and make myself a pina colada.
Cheers to that.