By Maud Webster
What makes one diet environmentally better than another? Whilst we can compare averaged stats, it falls to us to consider the impact of the individual products we consume; milks and their impacts on deforestation being a great example of this.
Before you get ragey in the comments, let me defend myself: this is not a tirade on veganism, nor on the practice of consuming animal products. I’m not here to tell you what to eat, or whether you’re moral or immoral for not glugging dairy milk into your cereal, or treating yourself to some galaxy chocolate. I’m just irked by the constant arguments around: “which diet is most environmentally sustainable? Socially sustainable? Ethical?”, when it’s not as straightforward as that.
Everyone’s dietary choices are so vastly different that it’s impossible to compare labelled – ‘vegan’, ‘vegetarian’, ‘paleo’, ‘keto’, etc. – diets. A carnivore could only eat food sourced from their back garden, whereas we could come across a vegan who gorges on imported fruits washed down with almond milk from California. Everyone eats within the parameters of a diet differently.
What we can try – trust me, emphasis on the try – to compare is the impact of different products.
Plant-based milks, or mylks, have become all the rage over the past few years. Even many people who don’t subscribe to a wholly vegan diet have switched from dairy to a preferred plant milk.
Whilst dairy sales have declined in recent decades, market intelligence agency Mintel found last year that 23% of Britons use plant-based milks. Though many people switch for environmental reasons, others have been critical of the misleading opinion that plant milks are inherently good for the environment.
Let’s talk about the trees
Deforestation is caused by the production of a whole host of milks, animal-derived and vegan, both in the creation of space to grow crops or provide space for dairy cows. But also ‘inadvertently’ through how money made by the milk market is funneled into other investments.
Researchers J. Poore and T. Nemecek conducted an extensive study into the environmental impacts of various varieties of milk; their research produced a huge volume of data, which largely proved that in terms of land and water use, and CO2 emissions, dairy outstrips vegan milks. This said, forests are sacrificed worldwide for space to rear cows, but also for soy, which is the second largest contributor of deforestation. Similarly, almond and rice milk guzzle roughly half the amount of water that dairy does, whilst soy and milk take a remarkably minimal amount by comparison. Even when selecting to move away from dairy, you’re faced with choices between the multitude of vegan milks available to you, each with their own environmental damage.
The Oatly controversy this year spotlighted how ethical consumption is near impossible within a capitalist society. The vegan milk giant was discovered accepting a large amount of investment from the private investment fund Blackstone, a company with shady links to deforestation in the Amazon, and headed by Trump donor Stephen Schwartzman.
This whole debacle raises the question (which I’ve elaborated on here): though oat milk inherently contributes less to deforestation than dairy comparators, does it contribute more in some cases (like Oatly), where the profit of product sales is being funneled into suspect practices?
For those who care enough, you not only have to consider the type of product you’re consuming in terms of environmental ethics (two inseparable concepts, for me at least), but who’s making this shit too.
What should I buy then?
We’re pummelled with choices every time we step foot in a supermarket, and I wouldn’t suggest getting overly preoccupied with making the ‘ethical’ choice. Standing in front of racks of milk cartons for hours, immobilized with indecision, isn’t really going to help anything in the end.
For many people, budget prohibits them from having choice over which plant milk they can go for, if any at all. If you can afford the time and money to buy local, or even make your own milk, please do – go for it. You’ll be making a small yet important contribution to the planet.
Ultimately, whilst we remain pandering to a capitalist agenda, you’ll be choosing between two evils most of the time when it comes to buying anything. So, think a little about what you’re purchasing, but don’t dwell on it too much.
Perhaps it would be more productive to begin dwelling on the economic systems and social priorities in place which make it so impossible for companies to produce truly ‘sustainable’ milk products in the first place…