Milk is a widely consumed food. According to Clai, in 2020 in the EU-28 [the data still includes the UK] the annual consumption of animal-derived milk was almost 65kg per-capita, plus in recent years the so-called “plant alternatives” have also grown exponentially. But which “milk” is the most sustainable? Here are some data.
It seems that practically nobody is able to do without milk: whether you consume the “traditional” cow’s milk or one of the many plant alternatives on the market, this is still a food that is absent from very few diets.
The transition from cow’s milk to plant-based milk often sees among the reasons lactose intolerances, allergies to milk proteins, hypercholesterolaemia, the search for greater digestibility, the search for specific beneficial properties or the choice to pursue a vegan diet. Another of the most cited reasons is that of the lower environmental impact that “plant milk” options have compared to cow’s milk.
Among the alternatives on the market, in fact, as with beef meat, the production of cow’s milk is certainly the least sustainable in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption: for every litre of cow’s milk produced, up to 628 litres of water and 3.2 kg of CO2 are created.
According to data reported by the New York Times, although water consumption and CO2 creation are also associated with plant alternatives to animal milk, any vegetable option is more positive for the environment. In fact, the production of almond milk is among the plant alternatives that requires more water, but it barely reaches 60% of water consumption compared to vaccines. And the production of rice milk is the largest pollutant among plant options, but it does not reach 40% of the emissions generated by cow’s milk.
Among those analysed, soy milk is the most sustainable plant-based alternative, both in terms of water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. However, it remains important to consider that the environmental sustainability of this milk substitute becomes effective only if its cultivation, packaging and transport are also effective.