GoEco Explains: Soy Superior to Rice? Choosing a Sustainable Plant-Based Milk

This Veganuary you may be wanting to switch to a plant-based milk, but which one? There’s so many on the market to choose from, and it can be difficult to know their different environmental impacts.

One thing is for sure; any plant-based milk is better than cow’s milk. A study at Oxford University demonstrated a 200ml glass of milk produces three times more greenhouse emissions than any alternative milk. Greenhouse gases produced in dairy farming come from land clearance for pasturing cows and growing feed, and, of course, methane from the cows themselves. It takes nine times the amount of land to make cow’s milk versus plant-based.

The plant-based milks we’ve listed below may have drawbacks, but they are all definitely better than cow’s milk. So if you want to know your almond from your oat, or understand the impacts of rice vs coconut, keep reading!

Coconut Milk – Less Water but More Deforestation

Due to farming in tropical climates, coconut plantations can result in rainforest clearance, despite relatively low production emissions.

Coconut milk is a low emitter as the coconut trees themselves draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as the produce is farmed. They also require relatively little water at roughly 0.5l per glass. 

However, coconuts can only be farmed in tropical climates, often resulting in rainforest clearance to make space for plantations in countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. Locals in these countries also commonly turn to coconut farming instead of subsistence crops – those which they grow to feed their families and community. Given the low prices offered for their coconut yield, this can cause a drop in living standards. 

If you are buying coconut products, it’s always best to look for the Fairtrade label to ensure that your purchases aren’t driving deforestation, and that farmers are being paid fairly for their crop.

Rice Milk – A Thirsty Methane Machine?

Rice is a water-heavy crop, and bacteria harboured in rice paddies emit substantial amounts of methane.

Rice milk is usually considered the most watery and tasteless of the milk alternatives. It is also on the higher end of the spectrum in terms of emission production, creating 0.24kg of emissions per 200ml glass. Rice is grown in waterlogged paddy fields that harbour methane-producing bacteria, and this makes up most of the greenhouse gases emitted from rice paddies. The greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is also emitted to a lesser degree by soil microbes in the rice farming process. 

It is important to bear in mind that, while some estimates say that rice farming contributes 2,5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is still an essential staple. Rice is the major calorie provider to more than half the world’s population, making it arguably the world’s most essential crop. It isn’t comparable to meat farming in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, so try not to consider it on the same level as beef or pork in terms of emissions. 

Soy Milk – The Comeback Kid

Soy requires little water and is on the lower end of greenhouse gas emitters, but its mass-farming has been associated with deforestation in the Amazon.

The OG milk alternative, soy has fallen out of favour in recent years with the rise of oat and almond. But don’t count it out just yet! Producing only 0.2kg of emissions per glass, and using only 5l of water to produce, soy can be considered a low maintenance crop. 

Soy milk is high in protein and therefore a good replacement for the nutrients lost by cutting out dairy. However, the crop is mass-farmed all over the world and is associated with deforestation of the Amazon. In 2020 it was found that approximately one fifth of Brazil’s soya exports to the EU were connected with illegal deforestation. 

The trick here is to look for organic or sustainably sourced soya in the US and Canada. While the monocropping used to farm soya isn’t good, any alternative to dairy is better. 

Almond Milk – Thirsty Work for this Carbon-Sequestering Crop

In part due to typically being farmed in arid California, almonds have a significantly high water consumption during production.

Almond milk has been a trendy alternative to cow’s milk for about half a decade now, and its wide availability in supermarkets indicates its popularity is set to continue. Just like coconut milk, this nutty alternative has low emissions due to the sequestration of carbon by the almond trees themselves. Around 0.14kg of emissions are produced per 200ml glass. 

Where almonds fall short is their water use. It takes 74.3l of water to create one glass of almond milk, a massive amount considering the aridity of California, where 80% of the world’s almonds are farmed. Almond farming is controversial in the drought-ridden US state as the water needed for the thirsty trees, which grow in hot climates, leads to intense irrigation of groundwater. In fact, Californian almond farming is responsible for one-tenth of the state’s water use, the same amount as the entire city of Los Angeles. 

Oat Milk – A Humble King

Oat milk produces just 0.18kg of emissions and uses 9.6l of water to produce a 200ml glass, however glyphosate-containing pesticides are commonly used in oat farming.

Unsurprisingly given its low carbon footprint, oat has become the milk of choice for gen Z, millennials and discerning hipsters all over the world. A single glass of oat milk creates only 0.18kg of emissions and uses only 9.6l of water during production. Because oats grow in cooler climates, they are a relatively low maintenance crop. They can also be rotated easily with other foodstuffs, improving soil health and making them perfect for sustainable farming. 

One thing to look out for is that oat farming often uses the pesticide ‘Roundup’, which contains glyphosate. To avoid this, try buying organic oat products. It is hoped that as the market and regulation moves, these harmful practices in oat farming will reduce. 

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