This got me wondering, as I occasionally have before, whether we should consider switching from regular milk to almond milk. It's been a couple of decades now since I gave up most meats on account of objections to factory farming (outlined in more detail in my "How to Become a Vegetarian" article), and I know that most of those same objections apply to dairy milk as well. The cows don't live a normal cow life; they're kept indoors most of the time and fed on grain, which isn't their natural diet. That, in turn, causes them to produce a lot more methane, making dairy farming one of the most carbon-intensive industries in the country. It also consumes a lot of water, and while milking one cow over its lifetime is a more efficient use of resources than butchering it and eating it all at once, it's still a much less efficient way to convert land to food than growing grain. So if I really wanted to be intellectually consistent, I really ought to give up milk and cheese as well as meat.
However, there are a few details that always give me pause. The first is the cost: at most stores in our area, a half-gallon of soy or almond milk costs around $3, roughly the same as a whole gallon of nonfat dairy milk. I've looked into recipes for homemade almond milk to see whether it's any cheaper, but it appears to be exactly the opposite. This recipe from Kitchn calls for a ratio of one cup of almonds to two cups of water; according to this analysis from Huffington Post, that works out to just under six ounces of almonds to produce about 14 ounces of almond milk. The best price we've ever found for almonds is around $5 a pound, so that works out to $8.57 for half a gallon of almond milk—and it's considerably more work than buying it in a carton.
However, even at $3 for half a gallon, almond milk is still cheaper than organic dairy milk, which typically costs at least $4 for the same volume. So if I were ever to decide that I just couldn't sleep at night while drinking regular milk any more, switching to almond milk, or another plant-based milk, would definitely be the cheaper alternative. What's less clear, though, is this thorny question: Is almond milk really better for the environment?
At first glance, it seems like this should be an easy call. After all, we already know how inefficient and destructive raising animals for meat is; making a milk substitute out of plants should obviously be greener. Yet if you really delve into the question, it's by no means clear that this is the case. I was doing some investigating of the topic this morning, and after spending a good half-hour or more looking through Google results (at least the ones that looked reliable), I emerged more confused than ever. Here's what I found:
- A 2016 life-cycle analysis of almond milk and dairy milk by UCLA undergraduates finds that almond milk has a much lower carbon footprint than cow's milk: about 0.36 kg of CO2 equivalent per liter, as opposed to 1.67 kg. However, its water use is much higher. It takes 77 gallons of water to produce a liter of dairy milk, but more than 1,611 gallons to produce a liter of almond milk.
- However, One Green Planet vehemently disputes these figures. It claims that it takes only 30 gallons of water to produce one gallon of dairy milk—but a gallon of almond milk uses only 23 gallons. (Its source for these figures is a 2014 article in Mother Jones, which in turn cites a variety of academic and government sources dated between 2005 and 2012.)
- The Guardian, a British news source that's normally very thorough in its fact-checking, takes a position that appears to be in between these two extremes—but it's a little hard to interpret. It claims (citing Mother Jones again) that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one almond, but 100 liters of water to produce 100 milliliters of cow's milk. Unfortunately, this isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, since it's not clear how many almonds go into a liter of almond milk. The UCLA paper used the recipe from Kitchn in its calculations, with its ratio of 1 cup almonds to 2 cups water—but based on their nutritional information, it appears that most commercial versions don't use anywhere near this volume of almonds. The Guardian claims that Alpro, one of the most popular brands in Britain, contains only 2% almonds by volume. The blogger at Treading My Own Path crunched the numbers using a less almond-intensive recipe and concluded that it requires 384 liters of water to produce a liter of almond milk, while cow's milk uses roughly 2.5 times as much.
- However, the water required to grow almonds is proportionally more damaging because 80 percent of the world's almonds are grown in California. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones that even in the middle of a drought, the state continues to plant thirsty new almond groves to satisfy the ever-growing demand for the white stuff. These trees not only use up scarce water supplies, they're actually draining aquifers so fast that the ground is sinking at a rate of 11 inches per year in one area. This undermines buildings and increases the risk of earthquakes.
- Meanwhile, Hilary Lebow of Alternative Daily comes out strongly in favor of "raw grass-fed milk," arguing that it's not only a "nutritional powerhouse" (packed with such buzzwords as "good bacteria," "digestive enzymes," "conjugated linoleic acid" that's "proven to reduce carcinogenesis," and "beneficial saturated fats, proteins and amino acids") but also completely free of all the environmental problems that plague factory-farmed milk. These eco-conscious dairy farms don't just have a smaller carbon footprint than the big factory farms, Lebow argues, they're "often actually improving the state of the land"—though she provides no evidence to back up this claim.
Unfortunately, finding a clear comparison between these different plant-based milks proved even more complicated than nailing down the figures on dairy versus almond milk. Umbra of Grist magazine, normally very detailed in her research, ducks the issue, saying "it stands to reason" that a plant-based milk would be better for the planet than cow's milk (though not actually showing this to be the case) but saying it's practically impossible to compare the different types directly. She concludes that all commercial plant milks have their problems and urges readers to try making their own—which, as we've already seen, is quite a bit more costly than buying the stuff.
Well and Good is a little more helpful, listing various factors that affect the sustainability of nut milks and arguing that milk from peas "might" be the best option. They're higher in protein than nuts and much less water-intensive to grow, and because they're a nitrogen-fixing crop, they actually improve soil quality rather than using up tons of carbon-intensive fertilizer. It is a highly processed foodstuff—much more so than almond milk, according to the Washington Post—but at least all the stuff going into it is pretty earth-friendly.
Of course, these the same benefits also apply to soybeans, which were once the most popular source for plant-based milk. The Culture-ist recommends soy milk as the best of the plant-based milks, saying it's "comparable to cow’s milk" in protein and fat content (though lacking in calcium) and uses less than 30 percent as much water to produce. Unfortunately, soy milk has one big drawback, at least in my opinion: it tastes gross. The one time I experimented with soy milk, I quickly switched back to cow's milk because I couldn't stomach the stuff.
So maybe it's time to give pea protein milk a try. Organic Life notes that it offers 8 to 10 grams of protein per cup and has a "mildly nutty and sweet" flavor, as opposed to the "beany" taste I found so off-putting in soy milk. Unfortunately, the stuff ain't cheap: Target lists a 48-ounce carton of Ripple at $3.99, which works out to a whopping $10.64 per gallon—way more than almond milk and even higher than organic cow's milk. But perhaps Stop & Shop will come through with another coupon, and we'll get a chance to see how we like it at a more reasonable price.