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Julia Stephan

Senior Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

This article is part of our monthly issue “Food for Future,” in which we invite you to join us in exploring the impact our daily eating habits have on the future of our personal lives, and the planet—because if everything we eat is a problem, what can we eat? We want to learn how far even small changes can go with informative and entertaining articles, specific tips for everyday life, and recipes that can guide the way and inspire us to take our first (and maybe even second) steps towards a more sustainable way to eat. Check out this link to find an overview of all our weekly topics, stories, recipes, and more.

After spending the last two weeks looking at sustainable meat consumption and alternatives, this week will be all about dairy products and, for many, the numbers we’ll share today may be surprising. Right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: The purpose of this article is not to persuade you to kick all dairy products from your diet, but simply to encourage you to take a closer look at what we consume every day and the impact that has on the environment.

Two recent personal experiences really stuck with me on this subject: one was reading this article in the German Süddeutsche Zeitung about the life of dairy cows in Germany (unfortunately you can only read it online if you have a subscription) and the other was when a friend told me that butter is even worse for the environment than beef. I was shocked. Could this be true? I had to find out for myself.

Americans love milk

Before we take a closer look at the ecological effects of the consumption of cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products, let’s go straight to the source: milk. Here, we’ll focus on cow’s milk, as products made from goat and sheep's milk only make up a relatively small part of the average American diet.

Do you recognize the phrases “Got Milk?” or “Milk does the body good”? Undoubtedly, if you grew up in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, you know these classic campaigns. The advertising industry has come up with a lot of ideas to ensure that we grow up with an extremely positive image of milk. If it's so healthy it can't be bad, can it?

According to the USDA, 2018, Americans consumed an average of 146 pounds of milk, 40 pounds of cheese, 13.4 pounds of yogurt, and 5.8 pounds of butter per person. In 2019, the U.S. produced over 218 billion pounds of milk.

To match this high demand, an entire industry needs to make a considerable effort. And who’s primarily responsible for this performance, is the animal without which nothing is possible: the dairy cow.

The dairy cow as a marathon runner

According to this data taken from the USDA Milk Production reports, the amount of milk one cow produces each year has increased every year since 1999—going from about 17 thousand pounds in 1999 to 23.4 thousand pounds in 2019. Holger Martens, professor in the department of veterinary medicine at the Freie Universität Berlin, compares this performance to humans and comes to the conclusion that a person would have to run a marathon three times a day to achieve the same effort.

Even setting aside the effects that this pressure to perform has on a cow's health, this production level doesn’t exist without consequences for the environment as well. Cows drink plenty of water and eat a considerable amount of animal feed. The latter, of course, must also be cultivated and requires land and water itself, often polluting the soil in the process. Cows also emit methane gas during digestion, which is more harmful to the climate than CO2.

Source: Poore & Nemecek “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” (2018), Science

Source: Poore & Nemecek “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” (2018), Science

But the health benefits of milk could counterbalance all that, right? Well… it’s complicated. Milk contains a lot of calcium (which is important for our bones) and protein (which is important for building and maintaining muscles), as well as vitamins B2 and B12, zinc, and iodine. Lactic acid bacteria, which are found in dairy products such as yogurt, are also good for intestinal health.

It’s not only due to the lactose intolerance that we’ve begun to think critically about the necessity of milk consumption. Only through evolutionary change is it even possible for humans to digest the mammalian milk of another species. Still, not everyone can digest milk, in particular the milk sugar called lactose. Researchers continue to investigate the connection between milk consumption and diseases such as cancer, an increased risk of heart attacks or strokes, inflammation, and accelerated ageing processes. So far, however, no long-term study has provided proof of this, so it’s currently assumed that milk does not cause any health problems when it’s consumed in moderation (at least if you’re not lactose intolerant).

Of course, most of the nutrients found in milk are also found in other foods, so the rationale to continue its consumption for nutrition alone is not bulletproof. However, plant-based milk alternatives can only partly keep up with the protein content of milk, though many are enriched with vitamins and minerals to compensate. Even so, a well-balanced diet is a diverse diet, so switching to plant-based milk doesn’t necessarily negate one’s ability to get the proper nutrients overall.

Why butter is worse for the environment than beef

The further along we go in the production chain, the more resources are naturally needed and used. Dairy products, such as heavy cream and cheese, have a higher climate impact than milk itself as a result. In addition to the resources for animal farming and producing milk, further refining and processing consume a lot of energy (the use of cold chain refrigeration, for example). Products requiring a larger amount of milk (those with a higher fat content) therefore have an even higher climate impact.

That’s also the reason why butter is worse for the climate than beef. It takes around 22 pounds of whole milk to produce just 1 pound of butter. The CO2 emission for 2.25 lbs (1 kg) of beef are around 30 lbs (13.3 kg), but for butter it spikes up to 53 lbs (23.8 kg). That adds up, and Americans ate an average of 5.8 lbs of butter per capita in 2018—a number which has only been increasing year after year.

Source: Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit

Source: Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit

Can everyone afford plant-based alternatives?

Plant-based alternatives for dairy products can already be found in most supermarkets and organic stores, from soy and rice to oat and almond.There are also many options for soy, coconut or nut-based yogurt, plus plant-based alternatives for heavy cream, cream cheese, hard cheeses, and even cheese made from cashews.

The downside? They’re considerably more expensive and therefore, from a financial point of view, not an option for many people. Most cafés add a surcharge for plant-based alternatives as well, which doesn’t necessarily incentivize people to stop drinking cow's milk, who otherwise might be interested to try a plant-based option.

At a popular online grocer, I found the following prices:
Half gallon cow’s milk: approx. $2.69
Half gallon oat milk: approx. $3.99

5 oz yogurt: approx. $1.40
5 oz cashew yogurt: approx. $1.99

8 oz cream cheese: approx. $3.99
8 oz almond cream cheese: approx. $7.99

There are several reasons for the disparity in pricing, depending on which country you’re living. Of course production chains, packaging, and transports all have an influence, but lobbies and subsidies play a huge role to ensure that dairy continues to be sold at cheaper prices.

Plant-based alternatives at a glance

Although plant-based alternatives in general score better than cow's milk when it comes to climate impact, there are still some aspects to consider. In the following, I will concentrate on the ecological effect, as I think everyone has to make their own judgement when it comes to taste or nutritional factors.

Soy: When talking about soy, the discussion turns quickly to destroying the rainforest. It’s true that a large amount of soy is imported and that rainforest areas are cleared to meet demand, and along the way soil and groundwater are often polluted. However,this type of cultivation is mainly for soy as animal feed for factory farming. You can find more figures on this in this Food For Future article. Soy that’s used for tofu, soy milk, and other products are mainly from Canada and Europe (so long transport distances may still be a problem). Make sure to double check where the soy products you’re using are coming from, as it’s often written on the packages—but you could also ask the manufacturers.

Rice: In some countries, rice cultivation is associated with toxic emission of greenhouse gases, pesticides, and poor working conditions. Wet rice cultivation releases methane through the process of decay, while dry rice cultivation releases nitrous oxide. Both are even more harmful to the environment than CO2. So with this in mind, pay even more attention to regional, organic products if you can.

Almond: About 80% of the world's almond harvest comes from California, an already dry region. There, they require a lot of water to grow and can have a long transport route depending on where you’re living. But that's not all of it—another worrying fact is the pollination of the almond trees. This is done by huge bee colonies. Approximately 1.5 million beehives are transported for kilometers each year to be then exposed to pesticides among other things for the sake of our almond consumption. Therefore, make sure to buy certified organic almond milk if you can.

Oat: Most oat products come from domestic cultivation. American companies therefore use oats grown mainly in the U.S. or North America. On top, this is mostly done according to organic standards—a glance at the packaging or a request to the respective manufacturer can help to clarify this to be on the safe side. This makes oat milk one of the best options from an environmental point of view among the alternatives presented here.

We’ll stop here, but rest assured that there are still numerous alternatives from hemp and cashew nuts to peas. The industry is ready for experiments—and you should be too. Stay open to new products, but at the same time, scrutinize them to find out how and where they are produced. Pick regional ones whenever possible.

What to do in everyday life?

So, to sum it up: Do you have to kick all dairy products from your diet from here on out? If you don't want to, then the answer is: No. Our monthly issue "Food for Future" is all about the small steps each of us can take within the scope of our own possibilities. And it’s not all about choice: As we touched on earlier, access to affordable milk alternatives makes for an inequitable and exclusive landscape for many who would like to make the switch but simply can’t.

If we look at the data, you’d do the environment a big favor by quitting dairy products altogether, or at least considerably reducing your consumption. But by simply questioning your current eating habits and making more conscious choices in your diet, you’re already on the road to making an impact. So if you do love cheese, but actually like oat milk in your coffee, why not start with here? At the very least, before you throw out that package of half-eaten yogurt, think about how many resources went into getting it to your fridge and ask yourself: Is there a better use for it than in my bin?

If you need inspiration for the first concrete steps in your kitchen, here are 5 non-dairy recipes to start with:

No-bake coconut-blueberry cheesecake

No-bake coconut-blueberry cheesecake

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Kamut semolina porridge

Kamut semolina porridge

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Vegan spinach and mushroom lasagna

Vegan spinach and mushroom lasagna

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Strawberry-basil cashew shake

Strawberry-basil cashew shake

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Vegan mac and cheese

Vegan mac and cheese

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Double chocolate cake with sweet potato frosting

Double chocolate cake with sweet potato frosting

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More delicious ideas for you