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Is oat milk bad for the environment? With the rising challenges on cow’s milk allergy, lactose intolerance, calorie concerns, cholesterol problems, and cancer, demand for plant milk alternatives have been rising. People are becoming more conscious nowadays of keeping the environmental impact of their food or beverage options as low as possible.

As plant-based milk is becoming popular such as oat milk, let’s unravel the boons and banes of this non-dairy milk.

Want to learn more? Check out our article on Is Burning Wood Bad For The Environment?

The boons and banes of oat milk

Consistency and Taste

The leading producers of oat milk have successfully imitated the appearance and consistency of regular cow milk. Ambassadors (i.e., the baristas) of an oat milk brand called Oatly described it as creamy-yet-neutral taste and foamy. Some say it is like drinking milk that had shredded wheat cereal soaked for a while.

Generally, this non-dairy milk is thicker and naturally sweeter than many of its contemporary kinds.

For some, though, its taste and consistency are like a paste that masked the coffee’s flavor when mixed with it.

Nutritional Value

One cup of oat milk has lower calories, protein, total fat, and sugar than 1 cup of dairy milk. Moreover, oat milk has higher fiber content, including iron, vitamin E, and folic acid.

Not only that, oats have a low glycemic index, which is good for your blood sugar. Oats also contain essential vitamins and minerals such as:

  • Manganese and B-vitamins.
  • Selenium, which is a mineral that helps the immune system fight cancer.
  • Beta-glucan, which bolsters the immune system.
  • Plant lignans, which help protect against hormone-sensitive cancers.

However, we cannot deny that commercial oat milk is packed with additives, sugars, and preservatives. While it also has some fortified minerals such as Vitamin D and calcium, it also contains thickeners and emulsifiers that could be detrimental to our digestive systems. Also, while a cup of dairy milk can give you 8 grams of protein content, a cup of oat milk can offer you only  4 grams of it.

Environmental impact

In 2013 dairy milk production reached a value of US $328 billion globally with a share of cow milk at 82.7%, buffalo milk (13.3%), goat milk (2.3%), sheep milk (1.3%), and camel milk (0.4%). This is expected to increase by 23% in 2025 as the population grows exponentially from 2013 levels.

 But a closer look at the US market data presented by Nielsen Company showed that cow milk annual sales declined by 6% in 2017 to 2018, 5.1% from 2000 to 2004, and 10.2 % from 2010 to 2014. A more shocking data revealed that despite population growth, dairy milk sales in the US has dramatically decreased by 35.6% from 1975 to 2016 levels. 

This favors plant milk alternatives that have been steadily increasing by 9% from 2017-2018 and are valued at $1.6 billion. This includes non-dairy milk products such as rice milk, almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, and oat milk.

When it comes to environmental impact, it is estimated that around 4% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG) are from the dairy sector, according to Food and Agricultural Organizations (FAO). The estimate includes milk and meat production, processing, and transportation.

Methane emission from dairy cows also accounts for 52% of the greenhouse emissions globally. In comparison, nitrous oxide accounts for 27% of developed countries’ dairy farms and 38% in dairy farms in developing countries. The water and ecological footprint for milk and dairy products are also significantly higher than greenhouse gas emissions from fruits and vegetables.

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Automation at a Dairy Milk Farm
Photo Credit: Picsfive

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also recognized the high carbon footprint of cow milk production per unit mass compared to plant milk. 

In 2018, Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford and his colleague compared the impacts of food production on our planet. There was quite a handful of them, so I excerpted only the dairy milk results plus the plant-based milk crops that include corn (i.e., maize), rice, soy milk, oatmeal, nuts, and groundnuts. Among the environmental parameters, they compared each other with land use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, and acidification potential. Data from the study are summarized below.

Milk producers will probably be excited to see that dairy milk’s environmental impact is lesser compared to rice, nuts, and ground nuts production. But of course, the study did not present other environmental effects of dairy farming, such as methane emissions, nitrous oxide emissions, including water and air pollution.

But for the sake of discussion, we may refer to Poore and Nemecek’s (2018) data to say that in general, oat milk from oat crop has a relatively lower environmental impact than dairy. But the soy milk still fares best among the rest of the milk substitutes, followed by maize or corn.

For one, oat milk requires less water and land than cow s milk (i.e., 7.6 m2 of land and 484 liters of water to produce a functional unit compared to 9 m2 of land and 628 liters of water required by cow s milk). It has greenhouse gas emissions of only 2.5 kg CO2 equivalent compared to 3.2 kg CO2 equivalent from cows milk. Its acidifying emissions at 10.7 g SO2 equivalent are almost half of the cow s milk and nearly the same atrophying emissions with only a 0.5 difference.

POV from a soy farm
Photo Credit: DipakShelare

However, the best milk substitute would probably soy milk topping the rank of having the least land and water use – using only 0.7 square meters of land and 28 liters of water per functional unit. Soy milk has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, including acidification and eutrophication emissions at 1 kg of CO2 equivalent, 2.6 g SO2 equivalent, and 1.1 g PO43 equivalent.  

On the other hand, your favorite milk substitute from nuts has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions at 0.4 kg CO2 equivalent – albeit it has the most considerable amount of water consumption at 4134 liters.

No wonder non-dairy milk sales are growing at a steady rate and are expected to reach USD 28,336.61 million by 2026 globally with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.1% in the forecast period of 2019 to 2026. These beverages have become “part of healthy lifestyle choices, rather than regarding them as simply for those with allergies or intolerances,” says Lu Ann Williams, Director of Innovation at Innova Market Insights.

 Is Oatly environmentally friendly?

According to Innova Market Insights, the plant-based beverage industry is a $9.8 billion market projected to grow to over $16 billion in 2018. And indeed, Oatly, one of the leading producers of oat milk, will benefit from this market projection.  

Oatly, the original oat milk company, is a 30-year old Swedish company established in 1990. What started as research is now over a hundred stores present in 25 countries throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. Its minimalist style of presenting products will catch the attention of sustainability gurus.  

Their product is comparably richer in soluble fiber, creamier, tastier, and has higher in carbohydrates and calories, doubling that one serving of almond milk.

The company also brags itself for being sustainable. Oatly’s mission is to empower people to choose solutions that are good for them and the planet and for the generations to come by providing a sustainable and resilient food system. Among others, they promote the following sustainability initiatives:

  •  Climate footprint declaration of their 19 products through an independent body;
  • Yearly representation of resource efficiency of their operations with targets; and
  • Social sustainability across different parts of their value chain among other countries.

They also have plans to provide more sustainable packaging and recovery of their waste. They are also a firm advocate of climate footprint labeling being pushed into law to help consumers make informed decisions before buying a product and encourage them to be more responsible for their climate impact.

Is Oat Milk Bad For The Environment?

No oat milk is not at all bad for the environment. 

It’s good to know that there is a wide range of sustainable food options in the market. With the reality of climate change, we need more information on how we can mitigate and apply it to our daily choices. There are some trade-offs when we switch to non-dairy, but the overall impact on the environment will surely outweigh it.

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