I received a newsletter a few weeks ago that kind of bummed me out. It was from Beyond Skin, a vegan shoe company, about the fact that almond milk sales had gone up 250% in the past five years while cow milk sales had gone done. The company was happy about this switch to “cruelty-free vegan alternatives.”
So yes, I was bummed out, because I thought it was probably a bit short-sighted. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s commendable to be aware of the impact dairy and meat farming have on the well-being of the animals. Yet, I was sceptical of the actual environmental benefits of mass-produced almond milk, as I know almonds are certainly not local to where I (and a lot of other people who eat them) live, and need a lot of water to grow. I set out to learn more about dairy-farming, compared carbon footprints and “food miles”, and other miscellaneous factors, in order to make up my mind about which milk to drink, and how to drink it. Here is what I found:
Milk production emits more greenhouse gas (GHG) than almond farming, at farm and factory gate (that is, before the final product is transported and distributed). The almond co-product credit mentioned above comes from hulls and shells that are used as livestock feed and for power generation.
Even though almonds are mainly grown in California (and for a small part in the Mediterranean), and milk can be made pretty much anywhere, the fact that almonds have to travel longer than milk to reach most of the consumers does not really change the fact that milk has a higher carbon footprint, most of which comes from the dairy farm phase. Plus, as a dry, non-perishable good, almonds don’t have to be transported by plane.
Of course, there are other things to take into account when comparing these two very different cultures. Milking cows is not an innocuous business, and the animals’ well-being will vary greatly depending on the type of farming, and the country’s standards.
But almond orchards are not totally harmless either. I found it especially fascinating to read about how farmers “import” bees to pollinate their orchards, and how this can put bees at risk by exposing them to new pathogens and chemicals, and by disrupting their seasonal life cycle. The fact that almond orchards need to be irrigated to thrive in the very dry state of California is also an issue, as the drought has severally touched the state over the past 5 years.
Will I resign myself to eating cereal with water? Will I give up eating cheese forever? Certainly not. But I’ll be more mindful about how I drink milk, and how I buy it.
A few words about the numbers used here: the carbon and water footprints are averages, and estimates. They are orders of magnitude, useful to compare two different objects. They vary depending on the type of farming and the production location.
Almond milk is made of almonds blended with water, and filtered to separate the “milk” from the left-over almond pulp. Throughout this article, I chose the high hypothesis of 1 cup of almond (or 140 grams) for a liter of almond milk, which is probably more than what is used in mass-produced almond milk.
For the milk carbon and water footprints:
Guinard, C., Verones, F., Loerincik, Y. and Jolliet, O. (2009) “Environmental/ecological impact of the dairy sector: Literature review on dairy products for an inventory of key issues, list of environmental initiative and influences on the dairy sector”. Bulletin of the International Dairy Federation; Report 436; International Dairy Federation: Brussels, Belgium.
Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.
For the almond milk carbon and water footprint:
, , , and Life Cycle–based Assessment of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Almond Production, Part I, Analytical Framework and Baseline Results”. Journal of Industrial Ecology. Volume 19, Number 6, 2015: 1008-1018. (Study made only on Californian almonds, and supported by a grant from the Almond Board of California)