Climate change is the biggest crisis we now face on our planet and animal agriculture is one of its leading causes, as well as a cause of soil erosion, water pollution, and decreased biodiversity. Farmed animals are responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, with the top 20 meat and dairy corporations globally producing more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of Germany.
Dairy's role in this is significant. The processes involved in the production of cow's milk, including transport, distribution, processing, and end-use, are resource-intensive and emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, which is incredibly harmful to the environment. There are over 250 million dairy cows in the world and vast amounts of grain and water are needed for feeding them, as well as for electricity, fuel, and additional water to maintain farms.
Not to mention the fact that cows' digestive systems cause them to continually emit methane, one of the main greenhouse gases and 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide, even more damaging than methane (about 300-times more potent than carbon dioxide), is present in the billions of gallons of manure that dairy cows excrete, otherwise known as 'slurry'. This pollutes our air and waterways and is a health hazard for anyone in range of it.
Dairy's impact in numbers
Globally, dairy has a hugely negative impact on the environment. A recent study by the University of Oxford looked at the global averages of emissions and land- and water-use needed to produce dairy and non-dairy milks, and found a stark difference in their relative environmental impacts. Dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milk.
Does a single glass of milk a day sound insignificant? Well, the same study revealed that producing a glass of milk a day for a year requires 650 square meters (7,000 sq ft) of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts. That single glass of dairy milk also requires 120 liters of water to produce, which is the equivalent of a bathtub of water.
In the UK alone, there are over two million dairy cows (most producing one calf annually) and the total annual carbon footprint of the dairy sector is estimated to be 15.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
A kinder alternative
The environmental impact of dairy production has inspired many people around the world to find an alternative to cow's milk. While anything that we consume has some impact, plant milks take far less of a toll on the environment, regardless of what type of plants are used as the basis.
Oat milk is a great go-to choice, requiring ten times less land and water use than dairy milk, and producing less than a third of the emissions. Oats can also be grown in various parts of the world, including Europe, so emissions from shipping can be reduced.
Although almond and rice milk are water-intensive to produce, they still use only around half as much water as dairy milk. And while some critics point to the vast environmental damage caused by deforestation for soya plantations as a reason to avoid soya milk, it's worth noting that the vast majority of soya is fed to farmed animals raised for meat and dairy, rather than used for human consumption.
Thankfully, the growing demand for plant-based milk has brought us many delicious varieties that are kinder to the environment. And if you are concerned about the carbon footprint of overseas shipping and packaging, why not buy your beans/grains/nuts locally and make your plant-based milk at home? By moving to a plant-based diet, we can help to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.