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Time for mylk! Dairy-free alternatives and their role in sustainability

If you regularly visit coffee shops, keep up with the newest food trends, or are just generally concerned with the environment and your health, chances are you’ve played around with plant-based milk alternatives at one point or another. If not, ehm.. where have you been? In this article, we dig into the billion-dollar industry that capitalises on the milking of oats and nuts whilst remarkably transforming consumer decision making.

DANSIC21, and this year’s case competition, is all about sustainability and individual practices contributing towards a circular economy. It is no surprise that we ended up here, talking about the dairy industry, which is one of the greatest contributors to climate change and other environmental issues such as deforestation, desertification and soil degradation. With way over 7 billion people on the planet to feed, agriculture and other forms of land use are significantly increasing anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. More specifically, animal agriculture is closely linked to the emission of methane, which has 28 times higher impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. But what does your double-shot grande latte have to do with all of this?

Considering that one glass of dairy milk results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emission than any plant-based option, the latter seems to be the obvious choice. And for many people, it is the favourable option, not because they’re lactose intolerant or follow a vegan diet, but because of the positive surge in accessibility and increased understanding around their impact on the planet. However, vegan alternatives come with issues of their own.

Photograph: Luigi Giordano/Getty Images/iStockphoto

When you think of alternative alternatives, the list goes on longer than you can count: oat, rice, soy, almond, cashew, macadamia, hemp, coconut, pea and pistachio just to name a few. One may assume that older generations would frown upon the idea of drinking “milk” made out of nuts and legumes, however, the original concept dates all the way back to the 1950s. That’s when the very first dairy-free milk alternative, soy milk, started appearing on supermarket shelves in the United States. Soy milk remained the most popular alternative, predominantly because its profile closely resembles that of cow’s milk, and has a significantly high protein content. It was blazing the trail up until the early 2000s, when almond milk came into vogue, so much so that in 2013 its sales exceeded soy milk’s. In the past couple of years, several brands and manufacturers jumped on the plant-based bandwagon, propelling a positive shift towards more environmentally-conscious purchasing decisions.

As with most things on the market that require mass production and crop cultivation, there comes a dark side when we closely examine the production, supply chain and environmental impacts of the final product. Here’s a quick overview of the most popular milk substitutes and some of the concerns around them that you may want to consider before your next purchase:

  • RICE - low nutritional value

It is one of the most inexpensive alternatives on the market, however, on top of being a water-guzzler, rice milk offers very little in terms of nutritional content and environmental benefits.

  • ALMOND - poor bees

Despite being the ruler of the plant-based liquid kingdom for years, recent studies raised serious concerns about the detrimental effects of almond tree plantations in California. High demand for almonds resulted in unsustainable pressure on beekeepers to get bees to pollinate enough cropland, subsequently killing large amounts of bees. Almond trees are also the most water-intensive dairy alternative, though requiring smaller territory of farmland than other variants.

  • COCONUT - exploitation of workers

Since coconut plantations require a tropical climate, the pressure is extremely high on workers in such regions of the world to meet the global demand for the plant. This often results in the underpayment of workers and deforestation in the area.

  • HAZELNUT - delicious and friendly

If you are in doubt about what to replace your trusty almond milk with that has a relatively similar flavour profile but is more environmentally friendly, hazelnut milk is your friend. Interestingly, hazelnut trees have the ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere instead of increasing it, whilst being pollinated by the wind, instead of bees. A sweet deal, quite literally.

  • SOY - ramp up the protein

Coming close to the end of the list, we must come back to this trusty old friend, soy. It fell out of favour as it contains some hormones similar to the ones found in the human body, however, it’s still the most nutritious, high-protein milk alternative on the market. Its drawback is similar to most other crops—it’s grown in massive quantities which has often resulted in deforestation.

  • OAT - the new star

It seems to be the safest option out there, at least for now. Oat milk shows stellar results in sustainability metrics, and we already grow plenty of it for other agricultural purposes, offering excess crops to be used for milk production without the need for additional plantations. Oat can also grow in cooler climates, thus not linked to deforestation in developing countries.

Ultimately, as long as you aim to move away from dairy and replace it with any plant-based alternative, you’re doing a great job for the planet. Most options will have some sort of shortcoming, but even the smallest of changes in your daily consumption can help move towards more sustainable practices on a larger scale. We hope you found some useful information above and will check back soon for more.

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