Dairy is bad for the planet, but are the alternatives any better?
One Change: Cow’s milk may be a better environmental choice than soya or almond milk
If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US. Photograph: iStock
There is no escaping the fact that cows are extremely destructive to life on this planet. The methane they emit causes 23 times as much global warming per molecule as carbon dioxide. Their manure is a leading cause of water pollution. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US, and since Ireland is the fifth largest cattle exporter in the world, our responsibility for the destruction to the environment caused by cows is significant.
Having said that, in comparison to soya milk or almond milk, cow’s milk may be the more environmental option, as soya milk is heavily processed and needs to be exported around the globe, while the majority of the world’s almonds are grown in drought-stricken California, where more than four litres of water are required to produce one singe almond.
The ideal option would be to use oat milk, preferably made at home by blending a cup of local Irish oats with four cups of water and a pinch of salt. You can add a date or dash of vanilla for sweetness, then strain it all through a thin towel to produce a creamy, naturally-sweet milk that is full of protein and other nutrients. It’ll keep in the fridge for a week. For extra points, grow the oats yourself, which most rural families did until a generation ago.
If you are sticking with dairy milk, the key element is to lessen the processing it undergoes, as this impacts its carbon footprint. The production of cheese can emit seven times more kgs of CO2 per kilo, while butter can lead to 23 times more carbon.
The ideal yoghurt would be a batch made at home by heating milk, produced locally, and adding a spoon of good-quality live yoghurt, then leaving it in a pot wrapped in a blanket overnight. This cuts out transport and packaging, and minimises the use of energy. Compare this with a flavoured yoghurt from a supermarket that will have fruit from one country, sugar from another, corn or wheat starch from somewhere else – all packaged in plastic pots with aluminium lids, and further packaging for bulk transport.
There is a way to considerably reduce the carbon impact of the milk you consume, and that is by buying locally from small-scale farmers who are not using chemicals and are tending their fields in a way that maximises the sequestering of carbon. This ensures that these few pioneering, conscientious farmers receive a decent income and it increases the likelihood that the cattle are treated humanely. If they allow the use of returnable bottles, you are saving money on waste collection.*
One Change is a weekly column about the changes, big and small, that we can make in our daily lives for the good of the planet.
* This article was edited on July 8th to correct a factual error. Dairy produce in Ireland is tested to ensure it does not contain antibiotics.