Which milk has the smallest impact on the planet?

This is Daniela, office manager at the data visualization tool Datawrapper. This week, I’m taking over to publish my first weekly chart ever, and to be honest: I am super nervous and very excited about it.

I am a coffee loyalist. I drink it twice a day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon. For the last few years, I’ve been drinking it with dairy milk and a lot of milk foam – I love a latte macchiato. But I also worry about climate change. I keep hearing over and over from well-meaning friends that the dairy industry is a climate-killer. I started to rethink my habits regarding the ecological footprint of my daily latte macchiato, so I started using oat milk for my coffee. That was in February this year.

But are milk alternatives really better than drinking cow’s milk? I wanted to find out. So for this week’s edition of the Weekly Chart, I am taking a look at the global impact of milk and its vegan substitutes.

From my research I found an interesting 2018 study at Oxford University by Poore & Nemecek, comparing the greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use of different foods. But the study only covered the impact of milk and soy milk. So I emailed Dr. Poore and asked him if he has the data on other milk substitutes too. And he did. Thanks to Dr. Poore’s quick response, we can now have a look at this:

To play around with this chart or embed it in your own articles for free, hover over it and click on “Edit this chart” in its top right corner.

As we can see, all of the non-dairy kinds of milks are much better for the environment than cow’s milk. They use less land, less water and generate lower amounts of greenhouse gases. This is because cows (and there are a lots of them) require a hell of a lot of land space and water. Then, there is the fact that cows are the major producers of methane, which is more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.

What’s the best milk alternative?

The alternative with the lowest gas emissions is almond milk. As the only tree-based milk alternative, they have the additional advantage that their leaves lock up a lot of CO2.

However, almond milk requires the most water to produce of any vegan kinds of milks. Almond trees are very thirsty: It takes five liters of water to grow one single almond. Furthermore, most almonds are currently grown in California, USA. Because of its hot and dry climate, water consumption is an issue.

When it comes to environmental impact, soy milk[1] and oat milk are the winner in this comparison. Both use the least water of all milk alternatives, with only slightly higher emissions than almond milk.

Before creating this Weekly Chart, I acted based on a belief. Now, I use data. It proved to me that I should avoid cow’s milk and to use oat milk instead. I am glad that I already changed my coffee-drinking habits at the beginning of this year and will continue to enjoy my morning oat milk macchiato.

I’m part of a trend

Now I was curious: Are other Germans interested in vegan milk alternatives too?

Yes, they really are! While rice milk has never gained much popularity with Germans, soy milk has garnered the attention of some for the last 5-6 years. What really surprised me is the strong rise of almond milk since 2012. (Maybe it’s because of its good taste?) Interest in oat milk rose dramatically at the beginning of 2019 – and I have no idea why. I’m curious to see where it will lead.

Another fun fact I found out by reading this chart: the interest in vegan milks spikes every January/February. So we Germans seems to make good new-years-resolutions every single year. 😉

If you want to know more about the impact of the food you eat, I can recommend this BBC “climate change food calculator”. Next week, our intern John will write his last Weekly Chart before his time with us ends. See you next week!

  1. You might be concerned that parts of the Amazon rainforest are being deforested specifically to produce soy plantations. But according to the Albert Schweizer Stiftung, 85% of these soy beans are currently used to feed animals and produce oil. Soy plantations for milk are mostly located in Europa.↩︎