Is plant-based milk really eco-friendly?

Learn the truth about the white stuff

As news of the environmental benefits of a vegan diet spreads, and the popularity of plant-based foods continues to grow, we’ve been hit with a wave of plant-milks.  There’s dairy-free milks made from soy, oats, almond and rice. They’re all better for the planet compared to cow’s milk, so which alternative takes the top spot? In a recent study, the University of Oxford made figures concerning dairy milk’s sustainability accessible to the public. They found that one 200ml glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions than non-dairy milks. Moreover, the study showed that the production of dairy milk also requires more land and water use than any plant-milk. So which is the best for the planet?

What are the options?

bar graph of vegan milk data

  • Oat milk is a relatively new variety to enter the UK market. Due to its creamy taste and likeness to dairy milk, it is surging in popularity. Even better – Oxford’s survey showed that no other milk has less of an impact on the environment. On average, across all three areas tested, including emissions, land use, and water use.
  • Soya came in second, with its mild taste, and very low water and land requirements.
  • Rice milk wasn’t far behind soya. Whilst rice milk has low impact on land and water use, out of all the plant milks studied, it was found to have the greatest effect on emissions. Rice milk still produced half the emissions of dairy milk.
  • Almond milk was revealed as the worst alternative on average out of all the plant milks. According to Oxford’s study, it requires more water to produce than soya, rice or oat milk. In fact, a single glass of almond milk needs 74 litres (130 pints of water) to produce, which is more than a typical shower. However, rice milk isn’t far off – it is also comparatively thirsty, requiring 54 litres of water per glass.

None of this is to say that you should boycott almond and rice milk. Both still require less water and land to produce than the typical glass of dairy milk. Rice milk actually requires the least land, out of all plant-milks analysed. Therefore, they also put out a smaller volume of emissions. So, if you want to go for the vegan milk that is the least damaging on average, the research all seems to point towards the oat variety. However, just by switching from dairy to plant-based milk, you will be lessening the damages that dairy has on the environment.