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When I first switched to a plant-based diet, there weren’t many nondairy milk options. That has since changed — but with so many plant milks to choose from today, it’s also important to consider their environmental consequences.
After all, while the dairy industry has received a bad rap for being resource-intensive, that doesn’t mean plant-based milks have no environmental impact (1, 2,
In my own search for the most eco-friendly plant milks, I found that different types have different footprints in terms of natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
This article examines the environmental impacts of various plant milks and provides tips for choosing the most eco-friendly options.
When comparing the environmental impact of plant milks, it’s important to understand which resources various plants need to grow and the footprint that they may leave.
A recent study that used data from over 10,000 farms worldwide to compare the environmental impacts of dairy, soy, almond, oat, and rice milks concluded that any nondairy milk is better for the planet than dairy (
In fact, dairy may have three times the greenhouse gas effect of plant milks and require nine times as much land to produce. Unlike dairy milk, plant milks don’t require natural resources to raise animals (
However, plants used to make commercial milks still require finite resources like land and water. Their production also emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which contribute to global warming (5).
Still, all plant-based milks have various pros and cons. Choosing the best one may depend on which environmental factors are most important to you and exploring the available data.
Currently, there’s no scientifically rigorous way to rank the environmental impacts of plant milk. All the same, it’s best to avoid almond and rice milks if you’re concerned about water use, as well as soy and oat milks if you’re concerned about land use.
Hemp, pea, and coconut milks may be better options.
Along with beef, soy is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest due to the amount of land required to meet demand. One study found that a 4-cup (1-liter) serving of soy milk requires approximately 1 square mile (2.6 square km) of land per year (
However, the majority of soy crops are grown to feed livestock and produce biofuel, not to make soy milk for humans. In fact, some sources suggest that a very small percentage of global soy is grown for people to consume directly (
The United States alone is responsible for 35% of global soy production. The good news is that the Amazon Soy Moratorium, an agreement by grain traders not to buy soy grown using recently deforested land, has led to a decrease in deforestation (
There are also some soy milk companies, such as Silk, that claim to only use organic soybeans grown in the United States, which removes the Amazon deforestation factor.
While soy may need a lot of land, it offers other benefits. As with other legumes, soy crops help fix nitrogen in the soil, which reduces the need to use nitrogen fertilizers (
Almond milk is one of the most water-intensive plant milks, requiring significantly more water than soy or oat milk. One study funded by the Almond Board of California estimated that it takes 3.2 gallons (12.1 liters) of water to produce a single California almond (11).
In another study that compared the water footprint of nine crops in Australia, almonds had the highest footprint by far — more than apples, grapes, tomatoes, oranges, peaches, cherries, potatoes, and carrots (
In fact, almonds used so much water that the authors recommended they no longer be grown (
Additionally, around 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, which has experienced extreme droughts in recent years, further threatening water resources (13).
When it comes to land resources, studies show that nuts require less than oatmeal but more than rice (
The hemp plant is eco-friendly in that it’s high yielding and that all of its parts can be used. Its leaves and seeds are used to make oil and milk, while the stalks and roots are ingredients in construction material, textile fibers, and hemp paper and plastics (14, 15).
Furthermore, hemp is naturally resistant to diseases and makes shade that helps reduce weeds. These factors mean that fewer herbicides and pesticides are needed to grow hemp. Their deep roots may also nourish the soil in which they’re grown (15).
Hemp milk itself has several health benefits.
Rice milk contributes a considerable amount of greenhouse gases. This is because rice paddies are known to contain bacteria that emit significant amounts of methane when flooded, a standard practice for rice crops (
Not surprisingly, rice also requires a lot of water to produce. However, when it comes to land resources, rice uses less land than soy, oats, and almonds (
Furthermore, rice is known to contain high levels of arsenic, which may contaminate nearby waterways (19).
Oats are often grown as large-scale monoculture crops, which means that they’re the only crop grown repeatedly on the same land.
Monocultures reduce the biodiversity of insects in the surrounding ecosystem, which may lead to an increase in pests and ultimately pesticide use. Monocultures may also deplete soil nutrients, reducing overall crop fertility (
Additionally, oats are commonly grown with glyphosate-based pesticides, which may promote the growth and spread of glyphosate-resistant pathogens that negatively affect plants, insects, and animals (22).
Still, according to lifecycle assessments conducted by the Swedish oat milk brand Oatly, its processes result in 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, 60% less energy, and 80% less land use than dairy milk (
Keep in mind that limiting factors and biases are common with industry-funded studies.
Other research suggests that oats require more land resources than soy, almond, and rice. As for water use, oats require significantly less than almond and rice — and only slightly more water than soy (
Peas are native to areas that tend to get significant rainfall, which means that they require fewer existing water resources to grow.
Furthermore, pea crops often don’t need a lot of irrigation and are rotated by farmers. This helps to naturally fix nitrogen in the soil and lower fertilizer demand (
Additionally, unlike soybeans, peas are not currently genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides (
The company Ripple claims that its pea milk requires 86% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than almond milk (27).
Little data is available on the direct environmental impacts of coconut milk. However, some research suggests that coconut milk contributes around half of the greenhouse gas emissions of soy milk (28).
Coconut trees require very little water to produce. Like other trees, they’re also natural carbon sinks, which means that they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen. This factor may help even out coconut milk’s overall carbon emissions (29).
However, coconuts are grown in tropical areas, and there’s some concern that the increased demand may mean a higher likelihood of displacing native species and biodiversity loss.
On the other hand, some research shows that the coconut may actually promote biodiversity and is not a threat to ecosystems (30,
More research is needed on plant milks’ environmental impacts to determine which ones rank best. While all plant milks have their own pros and cons, hemp and pea milks may be less resource-intensive than others.
Some plant milk companies recognize that there’s always room for improvement regarding their environmental impact. The following are examples of companies that are prioritizing sustainability.
This company, whose name stands for “Just One Ingredient,” makes plant milk concentrates instead of using water resources to make packaged milks. You simply add water at home and blend.
JOI’s products come in 100% recyclable packaging. The company strives for zero waste throughout its supply chain (32).
Shop for JOI plant milk concentrate online.
This company strives to reduce the carbon footprint and water waste that comes with prepackaged plant milks.
The Numilk Home machine works similarly to a coffee maker. You simply fill the included bottle with water and add the company’s packaged concentrate for milk, lattes, or protein shakes.
Numilk also offers kiosks at certain grocery stores in the eastern United States. You can use these to make fresh milk to take home (33).
Preorder Numilk products online.
Plant milk companies like JOI and Numilk are among the most environmentally conscious players in the industry. Their products minimize commercial water use and waste.
Making your own plant milk not only gives you more control over the ingredients used but may also be more eco-friendly.
Here’s how to make 4 cups (945 mL) of creamy oat milk at home.
- 1 cup (90 grams) of rolled oats
- 3 cups (710 mL) of water
- 1 pitted Medjool date
- 1/8 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- Combine all of the above ingredients in a high speed blender or food processor for 30–60 seconds until creamy. Be sure not to over-blend, since this may make the milk slimy.
- Strain the liquid — preferably twice — through a very thin towel into a large bowl to remove debris.
- Pour the strained milk into a sealable container, such as a lidded Mason jar, and refrigerate for 3–5 days.
You can use homemade plant milk in all of the ways you might use store-bought plant milk. It goes well on its own, as well as in cereal, granola, smoothies, and batter for baked goods.
You can easily make homemade plant milks, though they have a shorter shelf life than commercial ones. Making your own plant milk gives you more control over the ingredients used.
When choosing a plant milk based on environmental footprint, bear in mind that hemp, pea, and coconut milks may have less environmental impact than other varieties.
It may be best to rotate between a few kinds to see which you prefer and support local companies that promote sustainability.
Plus, trying a few types may help you reap several benefits, as plant milks range widely in nutrient composition. For instance, almond milk tends to have significantly less protein than soy or pea milk, while some milks are fortified with nutrients like vitamins D and B12.
Packaging is another important factor. Purchasing a plant milk that comes in a recyclable container is best to reduce waste.
If it makes sense for your household, buying organic plant milks may also help the planet. Doing so helps reduce pesticide and herbicide use, which harms soil, contaminates water and air, and even leads to biodiversity loss (
You may also choose to either make milk at home using raw nuts, grains, or legumes, or support one of the newer plant-based milk concentrate companies.
It can help to review a brand’s lifecycle assessment of its products, if available, although conflict of interest is possible.
While there isn’t one best plant milk overall, choosing milks that use recyclable packaging and are produced organically may minimize environmental impacts. You can also rotate between a few commercial varieties and make your own milk at home.
Research shows that plant milks have a significantly smaller environmental footprint than dairy milk. However, they’re not completely without impact.
Until more research is available, choosing the most eco-friendly option may depend primarily on which factors are most important to you. Different plant milks have different effects on water and land usage, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
Based on current data, it appears that almond requires the most water, oats are extremely land-intensive, and rice emits excessive greenhouse gases. Instead, you might consider trying coconut, hemp, or pea milks.
In the meantime, you can minimize your environmental impact by choosing plant milks packaged in recyclable materials or buying organic when possible. You can even make your own plant milk at home to have more control over how it’s made.
Just one thing
Try this today: If you’re new to plant milk, pick up one or two at the store to try in your coffee, cereal, smoothies, or baked goods. I like the flavor and consistency of plain, unsweetened soy milk for most purposes, and the occasional creamy oat milk or homemade vanilla cashew milk.