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Courtesy of Alicia Wang

December 9, 2019

An Exploration of Alternative Dairy – The Environmental and Economic Impacts of Oat, Almond and Soy Milks

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Whether it is Bus Stop Bagels, Libe Cafe or Temple of Zeus, many Cornellians begin their day with a cup of coffee. Beyond the classic add-ins like caramel syrup and half-and-half, alternative milk products have recently gained unique popularity as add-ins for cold brews, lattes, cappuccinos and even fruit smoothies.

The rise in demand for plant-based milk products like soy, almond and oat milk is actually nothing totally new. Since the 1970s, soy milk has been a famous alternative to those who were lactose intolerant, allergic to dairy or vegan. The latest rise in alternative milk products is particularly note-worthy largely because of the more recent emphasis on climate change, environmental sustainability and improving human nutrition.

Today, 37 percent fewer Americans drink cow’s milk than in 1970, and dairy milk sales dropped 20 percent — from $15 billion to $12 billion — between 2011 and 2017. On the other hand, plant-based milks have soared in popularity with sales at $2.11 billion in 2017 from $900 million in 2012.

While dairy milk offers a balanced mix of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, it also has allergens and lactose that can make digestion and consumption very difficult. As far as nutrition is concerned, oat, soy and almond are all fortified and supplemented with vitamins and proteins, but each to a different extent.

Unsweetened soy milk is known to be heart healthy with less saturated fats and equivalent protein content to dairy milk, eight grams per cup. Almond milk does fall short on protein content  — about 1 gram per cup versus soy and dairy — but is a good source of vitamins A and E naturally, and has less fat and carbohydrate content.

Oat milk has a notably high level of dietary fiber at 2 grams but also has a high carbohydrate content and a medium protein content at 3 grams per cup. Each company and brand of oat, soy and almond milk varies with nutrition, and it is also important to note that sugar and fat content will vary if the product is sweetened, flavored, or unsweetened.

The environmental impact and accessibility also vary across the three major alternative milk options.

Soy milk, for the longest time, was the most available alternative milk option. A glass of soy milk produces about 195 grams of carbon dioxide, compared to dairy milk at 600 grams. It takes 0.26 calories of fossil fuel to make 1 calorie of soy milk, in comparison to the 14 calories of fossil fuels needed for the same amount of dairy milk, according to a study conducted by Professor Emeritus David Pimentel, ecology and evolutionary biology.

It has also been found that one liter of soy milk requires about 297 liters of water to produce, which is one-third of the water required to produce one liter of cow’s milk.

After 2008, however, soy milk lost its crown in terms of sales due to a rise in almond milk. By the end of 2015, almond milk was sold at three times the rate as soy milk. When unsweetened, it was lower-calorie than both soy and dairy milk, but is known to be less creamy and thick than soy.

Almond milk continued to push the rise of alternative milk products and encouraged the environmental impact of plant-based products. A glass of almond milk is responsible for about 0.14 kilograms of carbon dioxide, lower than dairy and soy milk.

California is known for growing 80 percent of all almonds, and what is of concern with almond milk is the incredibly high water requirement. Just one almond requires 14.5 liters of water to produce. With droughts on the rise in California, the sustainability of almond production has come under question.

Oat milk is the newest and most rapidly growing milk alternative. Oat milk first hit the United States through coffee shops and quickly gained popularity. Oatly, a 25-year-old Swedish company for oat milk, introduced oat milk in the United States through specialty coffee shops, and these cafes quickly began to sell Oatly milk across the counter in bulk in addition to putting it in coffee drinks.

As of January 2019, Oatly began to sell at Wegmans and will shortly join the shelves of Fairway and Shop Rite this year, whereas soy and almond are much more distributed and available across the United States.

Thus far, oat milk does have a lower adverse environmental impact, compared to soy and almond.  To produce one pound of oats, it takes one-sixth the amount of water and resources needed to produce one pound of almonds. Furthermore, oats also use 80% less land to grow than dairy milk. In fact, a glass of oat milk is responsible for less greenhouse gas emissions than soy milk or dairy milk.

Currently, oat milk represents a small fraction of the total plant-based milk sales in the United States, but Chris Ross, vice president of marketing and research development at dairy giant HP Hood, predicts this is going to change.

Ross suggests that dairy companies like Hood will make changes to involve both dairy and non-dairy products. In fact, HP Hood launched Planet Oat, the company’s first non-dairy product, earlier this year to compete with Oatly.

“The competition from plant-based products makes dairy improve its game, at least to the extent that the competition is honest. Paying more attention to reducing our environmental impacts is simply necessary,” said Prof. Andrew Novakovic, applied economics and management.

Where there are milk alternatives, cheese, ice cream or yogurt alternatives are sure to follow. Ross predicts that oat and almond dairy will dominate the milk industry more equitably in the future in the United States in both milk and all other dairy products.

Therefore, it will also be important for farmers and milk industry leaders to stay ahead of the changes to come in business and profits as environmental and resource changes occur to sustain their families, livelihoods and industry.

“A great example of this is the number of California dairy farmers who are planting almond trees. Many are still milking cows, but as water resources and other restrictions on animal agriculture continues to make it harder for California dairy farms, they are using their productive assets to switch into a crop that offers better returns,” Novakovic said.