Plant alternatives

The global market of alternative plant-based dairy products grows steadily. Coconut, rice, cashew, almonds, hazelnuts, millet, and even hemp are only some of the options available. Poles turns also increasingly to plant replacements. They are chosen by people who care about health, vegetarians and vegans, as well as those who are interested in the condition of our planet. We know that meat production has a huge environmental cost, but what is the environmental impact of different types of vegetable milk and how they compare to cow’s milk? We have examined products that appear most frequently in stores.

From field to table

Joseph Poore and a team of scientists from the University of Oxford conducted the largest and most comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of food so far. They collected information from nearly 39,000 farms in 119 countries. The entire supply chain was considered, and assessment of the full impact of food products was made. From clearing the land for cultivation, through production, transport, packaging, and retailing. The data was then analysed in terms of land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, eutrophication, and acidification. The study was very extensive and lasted for 5 years. The scientific paper was published in Science magazine in mid-2018.

Which drink is the most friendly to our planet?

We asked Joseph to send us additional data for three other popular drinks: oat, rice, and almond. Which of these five does the most damage? In each case, cow’s milk had the greatest impact on the environment. Below you may find the data on average emissions, land use, and water use.

Milk vs „milk”

  • Land use
    On average, it takes 9 times more land to make cow’s milk than to produce any plant milk. Worldwide, cows are grazed on 830 million hectares. Almost an area the size of Brazil!
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
    The carbon footprint of cow’s milk is almost three times higher than that of plant replacements – an average of 3.2 kg CO2 equivalent per litre of milk. The remaining ones are 1.2 kg or less.
  • Water use
    The water footprint of cow’s milk is almost twice as high as that of almond milk, and 22 times as high as that of soy milk. Almonds and rice require more water than soy and oats, but still much less than a glass of cow’s milk.

Although the environmental impact of different farms can be very different, all plant-based drinks beat cow’s milk. This was also confirmed by another analysis.

Which “milk” to choose?

All plant milks have such a low impact on the environment, compared to cow’s milk, that if we choose any of them, it will bring great benefit to the planet. Also cows will be very grateful because of cruel practices used during milk production. Without them, it is impossible to maintain a continuous, high level of production.

In order to further minimize the impact on our planet, we encourage you to make your own milk at home! Here is a simple recipe for oat milk:


•  4 tablespoons of oat flakes
•  400ml of boiled water
•  optionally a pinch of salt or 1/2 a teaspoon of sugar

1.  Place oat flakes & water into a blender.
2.  Blend about a minute until smooth.
3.  Strain the liquid using cheesecloth or gauze.
4.  The resulting liquid is oat milk. You can sweeten it or salt to taste.

What would happen if everyone in the world switched from cow’s milk to soy milk?

  • We would save about half a billion hectares of land, an area the size of the European Union and India combined.
  • We would emit almost a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases less a year, which equals Germany’s total emissions.
  • We would save about 250 cubic kilometres of water. That is roughly the annual consumption of water for showers and baths of all the people in the world.

These estimates concern the liquid milk only. Emissions and other environmental footprints from cheese production will be several times higher, because 10 litres of milk are needed approximately to make 1 kg of cheese.

Further information on the impact of meat and animals products on the planet and its climate can be found in Joseph Poore “Addressing Climate Through Food” lecture for the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series. 

Source: Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, J. Poore, T. Nemecek. Additional calculations – J. Poore