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Plant-based vs. Cow’s Milk

February 4, 2020

Avoiding dairy is all the rave and more plant-based options are hitting the shelves! But with every fad comes the outcry:
• “Soy is destroying the rainforest!”
• “Almonds uses too much water!”
•” Why don’t you buy just buy organic cow’s milk from a source near you?”

On top of this, the colourful packaged products on supermarket shelves can be sweetened and mixed with additives, so should we really buy plant-based milk? 
Waste’s End Kristina Verena explains why she would still choose plant-based over animal milk from a sustainability perspective, whether organic milk really is better and what you should look out for when buying nut-based ‘mylks.

1. The value chain: How does the milk get to your table? 

No matter whether you use almonds, nuts, soy or cereals, the value chain is the same: Nuts or cereals are sown and grow in the field and when harvested, they may still be shelled or ground, (unfortunately often) packed in small packages and transported to the shop.

The way organic animal milk is produced depends largely on the system of the farm: Of course, all ads look idyllic with cows living in an organic and biodynamic agricultural system eating grass all day long. To get objective information better have a look at the supplier and the farms where your milk comes from.

Ideally, the cow milk you buy is organic and zero waste: Cows are milked by the farmer every evening, consumers then buy the milk in a can made of metal (as my grandma used to do), or it is filled into glass bottles and taken to the store or processed into yoghurt, cheese etc. However, in a region such as Singapore such a short value chain is literally impossible. From my experience, Demeter is the most reliable organic label for happy dairy cows. But be aware – a state organic label alone is not enough to guarantee such conditions.

Let’s look at the EU organic label as an example:

  •  They guarantee freedom from pesticides. In other words, the feed must come from controlled organic cultivation.
  • In addition, at least 60% of the feed must have been produced in-house or in regional cooperation. However, this says nothing about the type of feed – cows may also be fed with cereals and soya as long as they are organic. The preventive use of antibiotics is prohibited, as is the use if there are other alternatives. This is important to prevent resistances from developing and vital antibiotics from eventually being ineffective for human medication.
  • The organic seal also obliges farmers to give cows access to fresh air. But that only means that the cow has access to outdoor space –  a cow standing on concrete without a roof also fits the criteria. In contrast to cows from e.g. Demeter, “normal” organic cows may also be dehorned and artificially impregnated.

=> In conclusiong, organic farming is better for animal welfare. Nevertheless, we have to be aware that the well-being of animals is different depending on every farmer and the individual setting. Demeter is a particularly high-quality organic label with additional criteria, which I can warmly recommend for a dairy product, but be aware that just “organic” milk is not enough to guarantee 100% good living conditions and sustainably sourced milk.

2. How much organic milk is really being produced?

Milk consumption in Singapore is on the rise: From 47042.2 tonnes (2010) to 53386.6 tons (2016). As Singapore does heavily rely on imports also regarding milk, we only have few cow farms on the island. Most of the milk is imported from Australia, Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia and cow milk consumption – at least in pure form – is still not so common here and we do not have exact data for the consumption of organic milk. Let’s have a look at another country:

In 2019 Germany, the country with the highest milk production in the EU, produced an estimated 33 million tonnes of cow’s milk. Around 1 million tonnes of this is organic milk – just 3%. A small share of this is Demeter-labelled – unfortunately, there are no exact figures for this.

Worldwide the situation is as follows: 859 million tonnes of cow’s milk was produced in 2019, and the trend is rising. There are no more precise data on worldwide organic milk production. But if we assume that the relative amount of organic milk is the same as in Germany, we only have 25 million tons of organic milk worldwide. This shows that the majority of global production is conventional.

What does this mean? Well, 97% of dairy cows live crammed together in stables, never see a grassy field and eat artificial food in order to make them produce more milk. Farmers feed those cows mostly concentrated feed, based on soy, wheat and various other cereals, actually suitable for human nutrition.

The life cycle assessment also speaks clearly in favour of plant-based alternatives: Oat mylk, for example, uses 80% less land and produces 70% less CO2 than cow’s milk. The situation is similar for other types of milk – but it also depends on the type of farming and transport routes. Almond milk recently got under pressure because of intensive farming in California, which only works with high water consumption and industrial bee farming. But this is a topic for a separate article.

Overall, plant-based mylk has the potential to save many transport routes, emissions, arable land and water pollution from manure. Not to mention the animal suffering that results from conventional dairy products, but also from organic farming that is not conducted in an appropriate way.

3. Animal milk vs. Plant-based – my opinion

Cow’s milk was one of my first switches on my Zero Waste journey – going from composite packaging to glass deposit glass bottles. This automatically meant the purchase of Demeter products, as this is the only milk in my home region in Austria that is offered in glass bottles. I also found that this pasteurised, non-homogenised milk tasted way better than the processed milk from composite packaging, not to mention conventional UHT milk or condensed milk!

When I went to Thailand for my semester abroad in January 2019, I thought: Well, it’s going to be hard to eat without dairy products. As you might know, Demeter milk or yoghurt in glass bottles is not available there and conventional products were not an option for me anymore. At this time I was a real yoghurt fan – at home in Austria, I would usually have a 500g glass every week. However, in Thailand, I went shopping at the market  and discovered that the regional cuisine without dairy products is incredibly versatile! I did not miss dairy at all.

At my return,  I could hardly get used to European cuisine anymore. Everything was too fat, there was cream everywhere and yoghurt had a strange, sour taste for me. Already before I left, I started to make my own soymilk, so I continued this and replaced cow’s milk with other varieties like oat milk and almond milk too. From time to time, I use a little bit of Demeter milk or dairy products, but since living in Singapore I only rely on making my own plant milk.

When I come back to Austria I will follow the 80/20 principle: 80% fresh, homemade plant milk varieties and 20% Zero Waste Demeter products. This is Zero Waste, organic, regional, good for my health and for the earth! And the most important thing – it is tasty and offers a lot of variety for me.

=> Try plant milk too! It tastes great and fits perfectly to a holistic sustainable Zero Waste lifestyle. See my recipes HERE.

For those who have only bought conventional milk so far, I clearly recommend a complete switch to plant milk and/or Demeter-labelled organic milk in glass deposit bottles, if you can purchase it locally.

In my opinion, conventional milk is not suitable for an all-round sustainable Zero Waste Lifestyle – even if it has been collected in milk can or bought in deposit bottles.

There are many other reasons for choosing plant-based milk from a health and ethical perspective, see Rene Wrights here on Myth or Fact: Is Dairy Bad for Me?

4.  How can I buy sustainable nuts, almonds and cereals for plant-based mylk?

At least, due to the emission savings and the simplified value chain, plant-based mylk per se is more sustainable than milk of animal origin. Buying nuts, almonds and co. sustainably is not difficult, if you know where to look.

Here is what I look out for:

1. Buy organic: Only buy certified organic products. Demeter is stricter than a state organic label. But when it comes to herbal products I am also satisfied with the EU or USDA organic seal.

2. Purchase Zero Waste: By buying without packaging you can purchase exactly the amount you need and avoid the use of throwaway material. In a bulk store, the goods are usually organic and from fair trade.

3. Purchase regional: If you live in Singapore, coconuts, cashews and rice usually have shorter transport distances. Anyway, I recommend to ask if the country of origin is not clearly indicated.

4. Buying Fairtrade: For raw materials such as coconuts, the Fairtrade label guarantees social sustainability and fair payment for farmers.

This way, you can minimize the negative side effects of plant-based mylk, such as high water consumption by soy and almonds or long transportation routes for walnuts from Turkey.

I buy nuts and seeds exclusively in bulk stores because this automatically makes them Zero Waste, Organic and Fairtrade (if the bulk store operates sustainably!). I simply ask for the origin in the shop and then select the kinds of grains or nuts that are close to my region and fit my culinary plans.

Enjoy your milk or mylk, hopefully you are a bit wiser – and if you want to DIY – look HERE for 10 Great Recipes for Plant-Based Mylk!

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