In the western world, we love our dairy. A multi-billion dollar industry, supermarkets in Europe and North America pack the shelves with an immense variety of milk, yoghurt, cheeses, and other dairy products, tempting us with an endless rainbow of novel flavours and imports. But with an expected 70% increase in demand for food by 2050 due to increases in population, the United Nations is urging us to eat much less.
And that’s because despite the image of wholesome innocence that many dairies like to project, their creamy concoctions are among the least sustainable foods of all. Dairy production is in most cases a complex, highly industrialized and energy intensive operation. It all starts with milking the cows, something which is mostly done using electric-powered milking machines. The raw milk then gets transported via giant truck-tankers to dairy factories, where in a multi-stage process it is heated, pasteurized, homogenized, and/or dehydrated and finally packaged using energy-intensive production facilities. In many cases, the milk must then be transported again to further processing facilities to turn it into cheese, yoghurt or ice cream, from where it must still make its way to supermarket shelves. Lest we mention the feed (mostly hay or corn, which must be grown with large inputs of water, fertilizer and pesticides) needed to keep the cows alive, and serious waste-disposal issues on larger farms.
Still need convincing? Check out this video produced by the BBC about intensive dairy farming in Wisconsin (USA).
As the population of the earth grows and demand for dairy increases, sustainability-experts all agree that consuming fewer dairy products per person is key to keeping up with the ecological demands of the planet.
With dairy’s unsustainable record in mind, we explore two susbstitues proffessing benefits for both the environment and our health.
There is a lot of confusion in the media surrounding soya. While the growth of soya plantations has indeed come at the expense of rainforests in the sub-tropics, the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of this soy is destined for cattle feeding lots to sate our growing hunger for red meat, not for milk-alternatives. High meat consumption is a real environmental problem, soy consumption in the form of tofu or milk-alternatives, on the other hand, is not. The market for soy consumed as soy is still relatively small, the demand for which can be met without rainforest-grown plants.
If grown for direct human consumption in the form of soya-milk or tofu, its consumption is also much greener than cow’s milk since there are far fewer stages of production (including the fact that there are no cows who have to turn soy into milk).
Alpro, a UK-based soy brand, claims not to use GM (genetically modified) crops nor soya produced on former rainforest land, although there is no way of knowing whether this has been independently verified.
The health benefits of soy include its high protein content making it a suitable milk-alternative, high omega-fatty acid level (believed to lower cholesterol and fight heart disease), high isoflavone content (believed to fight cancer) and lower saturated fat level than dairy milk.
The downside of soy milk? Aside from the somewhat higher cost (10-30%), one irksome characteristic is it’s slightly oily texture and taste, meaning it does take some getting used to after years of consuming mild, creamy milk. So while it might not turn out the best tasting cappuccino or latte, it’s still great for breakfast cereal, adding a bit to black coffee or tea and for use in cooking and desserts.
Even better than soya in terms of green credentials, hemp is indeed from the same family of plants as cannabis (in fact it looks almost identical), only without the psychoactive ingredient, THC, present. Hemp milk, made only with the edible seeds of the hemp plant, is fortified with calcium and Vitamin D and often sweetened with grape juice to make it more like lactose-containing cow’s milk.
On the green side, hemp is an extremely hardy and fast growing plant which requires less water than soya and absolutely no herbicides or pesticides. It’s also a highly-efficient CO2 sequester, locking up as much as four times as much carbon as trees do. The seeds can also be used for food and the fibre is used to create sustainable building materials which has incredible thermal properties.
In the UK, Hemp milk is sold under the brand Balham and Murray Good Hemp and sells in most supermarkets with 1L fetching a wallet-stretching £1.99 ($3.00US+).
The taste, superior to soy with a sweet, woody flavour, make it an excellent drink on it’s own right. Hemp milk is also low in fat, although it lacks many of the other health benefits of soy.
One final tip: Don’t switch to a dairy-alternative 100% overnight. Switch 25% of the time to begin (as I did), slowly finding the one that’s right for you.