You can find dozens of plant-based milks at grocery stores or online, from newcomers like walnut and flax seed to classics like soy and almond.
While these milks used to be fringe, they now gross more than $21 billion in annual sales worldwide. An estimated 41% of US households now buy plant-based milks, along with a third of households in the UK.
People are switching to plant-based milk for a variety of reasons. Some people have dairy allergies, others want to protect cows, while many seek the associated health benefits.
And then there’s the environmental argument. When it comes to climate change, the dairy industry is a major source of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Dairy production also drives deforestation, causes water pollution, and consumes huge amounts of land resources.
“Any plant-based milk, be it made from beans, nuts, or seeds, has a lighter impact than dairy when it comes to GHG, as well as the use of water and land,” Dora Marinova and Diana Bogueva, researchers at Curtin University, wrote in the Conversation. “All available studies, including systematic reviews, categorically point this out.”
Plant-based milks make more sense for the planet, but that doesn’t mean they have no environmental impact.
Here’s a brief breakdown of which plant-based milks are the best for climate action, land use, and water resources.
Best for Lowering Your Carbon Footprint: Almond and Hazelnut
As climate change intensifies, scientists are urging people to transition to plant-based diets to reduce GHGs. Switching to plant-based milk would immediately reduce your carbon footprint.
In fact, dairy production releases three times as much GHGs as plant-based milk production. That’s largely because cows release methane, a GHG that is roughly 30 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2).
Of the most widely available plant-based alternatives, almond and hazelnut milks have the lowest carbon footprints. Because nuts are grown on trees instead of harvested in fields, they take up far less land and require fewer overall resources than crops. Trees also pull CO2 from the atmosphere, making them crucial in the fight against climate change.
In the years ahead, countries need to overhaul food production. Phasing out dairy and meat production will allow countries to produce more food on less land, use fewer resources overall, and significantly limit heat-trapping gases.
Best for Water Conservation: Soy and Oat
Cows need to drink a lot of water to make milk for human consumption. In fact, a single gallon of dairy milk requires nearly 2,400 gallons of water.
Plant-based milks use a fraction of that. Producing a gallon of oat milk requires around 180 gallons of water, while creating the equivalent amount of soy milk requires around 106 gallons of water.
Reducing the water intensity of your diet is important because water supplies are diminishing. By 2050, the UN reports that more than 5.5 billion people could face water scarcity. Droughts and heat waves caused by climate change are straining water availability in agricultural hotspots even as industrial sectors are increasing their water use.
By 2030, demand for water could be 40% greater than supply.
Switching to any plant-based milk will help lower water use in the food sector.
Best for Land: Oat and Hemp
Dairy and meat production causes immense harm to landscapes, from the destruction of forests to the degradation of soil. Worldwide, more than 75% of the earth’s land has been degraded from human activities such as industrial agriculture, a number that could rise to 95% by 2050.
Without healthy land, growing food will be hard in the years ahead. That’s part of the reason why the UN is calling on countries to “prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide” over the next decade.
And plant-based foods can play a big role in this shift. Whereas industrial dairy production hurts the planet, plant-based milks can actually improve land health.
Because oats can be grown in the cooler months as a cover crop (meaning, to cover and benefit the soil), they can help restore nutrients to the soil during the offseason while also increasing local biodiversity.
Hemp, meanwhile, can be grown in many different conditions, which makes it less likely that specific locations will be overburdened by hemp production. Hemp plants also have deep roots that nourish the soil and allow for less pesticide use.
Best Practices: Buy Organic and Diversify
Any plant-based milk is better for the planet than dairy milk. But there are some best practices you can make as a consumer to be even more eco-friendly, according to Marinova and Bogueva.
First of all, it’s better to buy organic products because they don’t involve harsh chemicals. Pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide use in agriculture not only threatens human health, but it also degrades soil and destroys animals and plant life, undermining entire ecosystems in the process.
The next thing you can do is buy different types of plant milk. By buying one type one week and another the next, you can help prevent industrial forms of agriculture from taking over the market. Industrial almond milk production, for example, has devastated bee populations in the US. By getting alternatives like hemp milk, you’ll be supporting crop and plant diversity and, among many other things, minimizing bee stress.