There are many reasons dairy milk consumption is in decline while plant-based milks are on the rise: increasing awareness of lactose intolerance and the power of food trends, sure, but many hope to lessen environmental impact. Avoiding animal-based milk, though, doesn’t guarantee your purchase is environmentally friendly. Just ask the bees.
Milk from cows remains one of the least environmentally friendly beverages out there, at least on average: it requires lots of land, lots of water, and creates lots of emissions to raise a dairy cow. Plant-based alternatives have sprung up more recently, with almond, walnut, hemp, oat, and rice milks all gaining popularity. But as The Guardian reports, some of those plant-based alternatives come with their own costs.
The Almonds and Bees Connection
Honey bees are required to grow almonds. Bees are shipped in, with hives placed strategically throughout almond groves, to encourage pollination of the almond trees. It takes millions of honey bees to pollinate the almond groves of California’s Central Valley, where most of America’s almonds come from. Because they’re so vital to agriculture, these bees are actually classified as livestock.
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The massive, industrial use of honey bees to grow almonds has major flaws. For one, honey bees aren’t native to California, or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter. They’re originally from Europe, imported a couple centuries ago. They can out-compete our native bees, which can throw a wrench in our ecosystems. But the honey bees are struggling, too. Almond trees are grown with dozens of pesticides, many of which are extremely toxic to both imported European honey bees and native North American bees.
Then there’s the Varroa mite, likely one of the major causes of the colony collapse disorder that’s been decimating honey bees for years. Many of the large almond growers use bees from multiple providers, which enables the mite to spread; in 2019, beekeepers lost 40% of their bees, the largest loss in the 13 years those statistics have been kept. Almonds are the largest use of honey bees as livestock in the country, and it’s not necessarily good for them. The bees have to be awakened from their winter slumber one to two months earlier than they’d naturally like to, meaning that the hives are smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable than they should be.
Other Plant-Based Milks and the Environment
Not all plant-based milks have the same environmental footprint. The BBC compared a few different ones (rice, almond, soy, and oat) by the amount of land use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions per glass of milk. Almond milk, with its high demand for water and this whole honey bee thing, ranks poorly. Soy used for soy milk is often grown with lots and lots of pesticides, and one of the largest soy producers, Brazil, has been linked to massive deforestation in its soybean production.
These environmental problems aren’t necessarily true across all milk alternatives. The impacts vary grower by grower, brand by brand, and so on. Like the rest of our food chain, some companies are more sustainable than others. The vast majority of plant-based milks are going to have a smaller environmental footprint than dairy milk. But regulation and labeling is confusing and limited. So it can sometimes be easier to simply opt for a different type of plant-based milk, one that, again on average, is a little less damaging to the environment than almond milk.
Hazelnut requires less water and fewer pollinators than most nuts, though research on its environmental impact is essentially nonexistent. Hemp, increasing in popularity thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill which legalized its growth nationwide, is a hardy plant that requires little in the way of pesticides. Oats also require very little water compared with almond or dairy milk.
Research on the environmental impact of all of these "milks" is in its very early stages, with a lot left to be known. But being conscious of what we do know can help us make the right dairy-aisle decision.