Just one almond requires four litres of water to be produced, but what are the environmental consequences? Is almond milk killing the planet?
In previous years, the only non-dairy alternative to cows’ milk was soy. Now, as if the cow’s udder has run dry (it hasn’t), there are more dairy-free options available than ever before – almond, oat, cashew, rice, coconut milks – just to name a few.
And while these options have saved many lactose-sensitive people, become the new “Instagram vegan” trend that is low in calories, and allowed café owners to up the prices of their coffee, one particular type of dairy-free milk may not be as good for the planet as it seems.
Rethinking Almond Milk
Almond milk is the most popular of all non-dairy milks, with sales growing by 250% over the past five years in the US. With sales reaching $1.2 billion (USD) per year, it’s a lucrative market, and one that producers are cashing in on.
Yet the increase in popularity and demand for almond milk is causing some environmentalists to be concerned. It’s all due to the amount of water that producing almonds requires.
One single almond requires approximately 4.16 litres of water to be produced. Over 2018/19, the United States, as the world’s largest almond producer, harvested over a million metric tonnes of almonds. It’s not hard to see the maths here – almond production requires a lot of water.
According to UN Water, “water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change” – and it can already be seen in the unpredictability of water in some areas, increased drought in others, and mass-flooding elsewhere.
And when places like California, which produces 80 per cent of the world’s almonds, experience severe drought, farmers must turn to alternate sources of water to maintain their crops.
What about the bees?
Environmental concerns surrounding almond milk go beyond water consumption.
To function, almond orchards require the pollination of bees, almost more than any other crop. With approximately two million hives required for every almond season, a third of US beekeeping revenue comes from almond pollination in California.
Yet, in the winter season of 2018-19, more than 50 billion bees were wiped out. The loss was due to a combination of climate change and habitat loss, diseases from parasites and pesticide exposure.
Ironically, it is the almond crop that is sprayed with the most pesticides in the US. According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, 35 million pounds of pesticide a year is doused onto almond orchards to combat pests such as navel orangeworm, which can not only cause direct damage to crops, but it also poses a major food safety hazard.
Unfortunately, these pesticides, which protect almonds for human consumption, are toxic to bees. It is a feat worsened by the fact that they are all concentrated in one region – meaning sickness and disease can spread at an alarming rate.
For every acre of almond crop, at least two hives are required for pollination. Yet with bee numbers dwindling worldwide, there are calls to revaluate this standard practice and reduce the number of colonies required per acre.
Should we switch back to dairy milk?
While there are a few environmental concerns with almond milk, it’s also important to remember the upsides, too.
A 2018 study conducted by the University of Oxford found that when compared to dairy milk, all plant based alternatives produced significantly less carbon emissions – including almond milk.
Further, according to Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology, almond production has a carbon footprint that is 10 times smaller than what is produced from dairy milk.
And while dairy products aren’t unhealthy, with cow’s milk containing a plethora of protein, calcium and Vitamin D, the production of dairy milk actually uses more water than almond milk does, according to Bloomberg.
Additionally, there’s also the fact that consuming dairy milk can cause significant upset for many people – over 65 per cent of the global population are said to suffer from lactose intolerance.
How to get your dairy-free alternative while also saving the planet
Dietitians Rosie Saunt and Helen West from The Rooted Project told Insider that “oat, soy and cashew milks use much less water during production” than almond and rice milk.
But it’s also important to consider than any plant-based alternative, even almond milk, is less water intensive than dairy outputs, and dairy alternatives also produce more greenhouse gases.
Therefore, any non-dairy choice will be helping the environment in some way, but being mindful of where milk comes from can be the ultimate way to reduce environmental impact.
Consider hemp milk. Hemp breathes in four times more carbon dioxide than trees, making air quality much purer.
According to GoodEarth, hemp seeds also “grow in diverse soil types and conditions without the need for chemical inputs, [while also adding] nutrients to the soul by tapping into sub-soil nutrients other plants cannot access”.
Hemp was even used on the grounds of the nuclear disaster site Chernobyl to remove radioactive elements.
So, while one doesn’t have to dismally abandon their almond milk latte for fear of destroying the planet, considering opting for a different non-dairy alternative every now and then. The bees and water will thank you later.