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World Milk Day: How do milk products impact the environment?

This World Milk Day, researchers at the University of Oxford have announced new findings that shed light on the ecological impact of various types of milk, revealing surprising insights about the environmental toll of our favorite breakfast drink. 

The researchers analyzed the carbon emissions, land use, and water consumption associated with the production of dairy milk and several vegan alternatives. They present a comprehensive comparison that consumers might want to consider before buying their next carton of milk.

The best and the worst

The study, directed by Joseph Poore, has identified almond milk as the most eco-friendly vegan option for those wishing to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions. On the contrary, rice milk was found to be the least sustainable among the plant-based options.

The overall environmental impacts of animal milks far exceeded that of plant-based alternatives, due primarily to the substantial greenhouse gas emissions associated with cows. Livestock farming at its current scale is a significant source of greenhouse gases, thereby propelling our planet further towards a climate crisis, according to the scientists.

Dairy milk, a mainstay in many households, was found to have the highest emissions at approximately 1.41lbs (0.64kg) for every 200ml glass. After dairy milk, rice milk was shown to have the second highest emissions, clocking in at around 0.66lbs (0.3kg) per glass, followed by soy milk, oat milk, and almond milk.

Beyond the carbon footprint 

The environmental impact of milk alternatives is not solely dictated by their carbon footprint. The researchers also examined the land and water resources utilized in milk production, key factors in determining the sustainability of food choices. 

Almond milk was found to have a significant water footprint, with 74 liters required to produce a 200ml glass, largely due to the high water demands of almond trees. Similarly, the semi-aquatic nature of rice plants necessitates constant irrigation, leading to a considerable water use of 54 liters per glass for rice milk. Comparatively, soy and oat milks had low water use.

When it comes to land use, all four vegan alternatives outperformed dairy milk, which was the least eco-friendly choice by a large margin. Land use of dairy milk was found to be a staggering 1.7 square meters per 200ml glass, whereas the vegan alternatives required 0.1 square meters or less.

Plant-based versus dairy milk

These findings prompt the question of how best to make sustainable choices in the dairy aisle. According to Jena Williams, a dietitian at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, who wasn’t involved with the study, opting for any plant-based milk is a step in the right direction, provided efforts are made to recycle the packaging.

“Plant-based milk has a smaller impact on water and land as well as carbon emissions when compared to dairy milk,” explained Williams. She recommends soy, oat, hemp, and pea milks as more eco-friendly choices than almond or rice milk and advocates for plant-based milks in recyclable containers and organic options to reduce waste and pesticide use.

The University of Oxford’s research supports data from the “food carbon footprint calculator,” an online tool that assigns a “carbon rating” to hundreds of food items. The tool uses CO2 equivalent (CO2e), a unit of measurement that standardizes the climate effects of various greenhouse gases, to rank items. According to this tool, no vegan milk has a carbon footprint close to that of dairy milk.

Nutritional values

Soy milk, in particular, is an attractive alternative to dairy milk not just from an environmental standpoint but also from a nutritional one. Meagan Bridges Durkin, a nutrition specialist at the University of Virginia, explains that soy milk closely matches the nutritional values of regular cow’s milk, particularly in terms of protein, vitamin C, and calcium.

“Soy milk has gotten a bad rap lately, as other alternative forms have come onto the market, people are maybe trying to find reasons not to drink soy milk,” said Durkin.

“Soy milk is a really good alternative and the best thing is that, from a nutrition standpoint, it’s as close to cow’s milk as you’re going to get in terms of protein, vitamin C and calcium.”

More about World Milk Day 

World Milk Day is celebrated on June 1 every year and was first established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 2001. This day is recognized worldwide to focus attention on the importance of milk, which is a staple part of the diet for millions of people across the globe.

World Milk Day serves as an occasion to highlight the contributions of the dairy sector to sustainability, economic development, livelihoods, and nutrition. Various activities and events are held across the globe to celebrate. 

The recent study from the University of Oxford, exploring the environmental impact of various types of milk, is a critical contribution to this year’s World Milk Day.

By highlighting the ecological implications of our milk choices, the research adds another dimension to our understanding of this globally significant beverage. As we strive for sustainability and health, such insights become invaluable in making informed dietary decisions.


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