To save the planet, cut down on milk as well as meat

Cutting down on meat consumption helps to cool the planet, and milk is not without its drawbacks too. Image: By Ieneach fan ‘e Esk, via Wikimedia Commons

Eating less meat is key to slowing the climate crisis. But if you want to cool the Earth, cut down on milk as well.

LONDON, 15 September, 2021 − The prospect of life without bacon doesn’t appeal to many people used to a Western diet. And forgoing a steak or a lamb chop sounds like a heavy price to pay to cut carbon emissions and combat the climate emergency. Well, there’s worse news to come if you’re a committed consumer of a diet based not just on meat but on dairy products as well: to tame the galloping pace of global heating, you also need to give up milk and all it provides.

That’s the bad news. The better news is that “milk” refers simply to animal products. And there are other sorts, called milk but very different, and in some ways much better for the planet.

Some variations on milk from animals − cattle, sheep, camels or whatever − are becoming more familiar. It’s no surprise nowadays to be able to choose oat, soya or almond milk in many outlets. But that’s not all: hemp and peas, walnuts, hazelnuts and tiger nuts are all reaching the market now as acceptable milk alternatives, and more are on the way.

The UK-based Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the Paris Agreement on climate change). It thinks alternatives to dairy milk could help.

The RTA says using animals to produce milk for human consumption is not only a massive industry, but a very inefficient, polluting one as well, which takes up far more land and water than non-dairy alternatives and creates three times as much pollution that fuels climate breakdown as rivals like oat and soya milk.

Drying out

“But the good news is that over the past five years, non-dairy milk alternatives have gone rapidly from being a fringe dietary substitute to a mainstream, ethical and sustainable staple”, the RTA argues. “Nearly half of all shoppers in the US are now buying it.”

Oat milk, especially, it says, is enjoying a meteoric rise and is one of the most sustainable milk alternatives currently available in terms of emissions and its use of water and land. Oatly, the Swedish manufacturer founded in the 1990s, saw its global sales increase by 106% in 2020 and, as a result, is having to increase production fast.

In 2023 Oatly plans to open the world’s biggest alternative milk factory in eastern England, turning out 450 million litres of oat milk a day and creating hundreds of jobs in the process.

The Alliance argues that the growth of the milk alternatives market is happening because the products “speak to a range of concerns surrounding animal welfare, human health and the climate crisis. By connecting to all of these concerns, milk alternatives have created a broad-based coalition of consumers that are making new markets and challenging old ones.”

But changing to non-dairy milk isn’t all plain sailing, as the RTA acknowledges. For instance, the high demand for almonds is using up huge amounts of water in places like California, accelerating the growth of deserts. And in some parts of the world old-growth forests are being cleared to farm dairy alternatives and keep up with global demand.

“Non-dairy milk alternatives have gone rapidly from being a fringe dietary substitute to a mainstream, ethical and sustainable staple”

There is real concern that the growing demand for more sustainable milk alternatives will be met through unsustainable means. Intensive farming of alternatives can create monocultures that blight biodiversity, need large amounts of water and can release more carbon into the atmosphere. An exponential rise in alternatives may also mean more food miles are generated in transporting them to markets.

There will certainly be losers. In the UK, for instance, falling prices and reduced demand have already led to the closure of 1,000 dairy farms between 2013 and 2016 − roughly one in ten. It’s predicted that by 2025 there will be fewer than 5,000 dairy farms in the UK, down from 13,000 in 2010.

But dairy milk is not to everyone’s taste anyway. Estimates vary, but over 75% of the global population is believed to be unable to digest milk and dairy. So producing less may not mean a long-term global loss. And there’s also the health of traditional consumers to reckon with.

One recent long-term study linked levels of dairy milk consumption with increased rates of bone fracture and mortality. Research has also suggested that various components of dairy products may be responsible for higher rates of ovarian and prostate cancer. Dairy products are high in saturated fats too, which drive up cholesterol, raising the risk of heart disease.

There are clear benefits from cutting dairy milk use, and clear snags as well, with consumer resistance perhaps one of the greatest. Nobody said solving the climate crisis would be easy. But giving up cheese? Try telling that to the French. − Climate News Network

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The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

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About Alex Kirby

Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.