Got Milk? The Truth About Our Non-Dairy Alternatives

Bees, they’re humble little things. But, wow, are they hard workers. When I was younger, I used to read while sunbathing in the garden, a garden that was full of flowering plants. There were flying, buzzing things everywhere. At the time I consigned all flying insects – bees, wasps, flies – into the same pot of irritation. Now I know this was unfair. While those pesky flies were creeping up my thighs tiptoeing across my face, each little bee was busy pollinating.

Bees make around 12 trips from the hive each day and visit 50-100 flowers in one outing. Their importance for pollination is unimaginable. Honey bees pollinate a third of our food. Contrary to popular belief, however, they don’t pollinate everything. Grains and cereals – some 60% of the world’s food – for example, are pollinated naturally through the wind. But they do pollinate a lot of fruit, vegetables and nut-growing plants. Currently the economic loss of bees as pollinators is estimated to be around 8%. But seeing as we have to switch to more non-animal sources of food, particularly protein, as we move forward the role of bees can’t be underestimated. I’m putting aside the fact that we shouldn’t just look at bees for their economic value. The countryside would be dull, monotonous and homogenous without them and we’d be responsible for yet another mass extinction in the animal kingdom.

When it comes to almond farming, however, bees are vitally important. Almonds are grown on trees. These trees have beautiful white flowers and, guess what, they need to be pollinated by bees. According to Nielsen, between 2013 and 2018, sales of almond milk in the US have grown 250% to reach $1.2bn – four times the value of any other plant-based milk. California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, and the global almond milk market was worth $5.2 billion in 2018*2 and growing fast. That’s a lot of money, particularly for just one state in one country. And bees have been paying the price.

Colony collapse is a word that’s been in the news more and more over the past two years. But most recently I read about the massive extent of this terrible genocide in a The Guardian*3 article about almond milk – the jewel in every vegan’s crown.

According to the article, “50 billion bees – more than seven times the world’s human population – were wiped out in a few months during winter 2018-19. This is more than one-third of commercial US bee colonies, the highest number since the annual survey started in the mid-2000s.”

The reasons behind this are unclear. I’d guess it has something to do with the intensity of modern mono-culture farming and the loss of biodiversity that comes with it, as well as the increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides not to mention we are commercialising to the point of mass efficiency/break down of growing plants – something that nature definitely doesn’t rush.

So far, almond plantations haven’t felt the pinch. But US bee keepers are struggling. And, of course, bees are being killed off in their millions because of what we’re doing. According to The Guardian article, some farmers are losing 30% of their bees each pollinating season.

So what can we do? We could all cut down on our consumption of almond milk for starters. There are plenty of other alternatives, each with their own set of pros on cons. It is worth pointing out at this stage, that all plant-based milks have lower carbon footprints than dairy milk. An article in Science, states that a glass of dairy milk results in nearly three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk and producing it requires nine times more land than any non-dairy milk alternative*4.

So what are the alternatives?

Coconut – intensively farmed in monocultures, workers are often exploited, it’s high in fat but low in protein

Almond – intensively farmed in monocultures, stresses bees with knock-on effect of colony collapse, high in vitamin E and low in fast

Rice – growing rice actually produces a lot of CO2 as well as methane emissions (not dairy level, but rice milk has the biggest carbon footprint at the cultivation level of any plant-based milk) and it doesn’t have much nutritional value

Hazelnut – not resource intensive and are pollinated by the wind, still quite expensive, it’s usually sweetened and doesn’t have much nutritional value

Hemp and Flex Seed – still relatively small scale so their expensive with not much in terms of nutritional value, but don’t negatively effect biodiversity

Soy – high in protein and other nutrients but it’s grown on massive monocultures (more on this in a later post)

Oat – similar pros and cons to soy but less protein and generally grown in areas with better supply chains, though still monocultures

There is no perfect solution. I generally mix things up depending on whether I want a ‘milk’ for cooking or drinking, in tea/coffee or to make some other ‘milky’ drink (I love a golden latte in the morning). While I was living in Sweden I saw, first-hand, the rise of Oatley and I think what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is impressive. Plus, it just tastes better than other oat milks. Here in Italy I opt for soy as it’s most readily available. But this is also because I’m trying to get my protein levels up. I’d say, go with what works best for you and what you enjoy most, but be prepared to give other alternatives a try.

For more detailed information, I’d recommending reading this article from The Guardian, who generally publish well-balanced and well-researched articles on many aspects of sustainable living.

  3. https://www.theguardiacom/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
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Cheesy Nightmares

Melted, hard, soft, blue, goats, sheeps, mature, fresh – I could write a love song about cheese. From cheese and pickle on toast as my after-school snack to bottles of red wine and round-the-world cheese boards, I simply adore cheese in all its forms. And living in Italy has only deepened my love affair. I mean, burrata… just wow!

However, I was shocked to learn this year that dairy farming has the fourth biggest CO2 footprint of all our food protein sources, right after beef, lamb and crustaceans (p24 There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee).

I gave up meat several years ago, fish and seafood last year. I thought on the food front I was doing pretty well. Clearly not. Pork, poultry, eggs and even farmed fish pose less of a climate impact than dairy farming. So why am I still eating cheese?

It’s not just because I love it. Because I also love fish. I long for sushi. I reminisce about the smell of chicken tikka masala. And I grew up eating Cumberland sausages and they still have a special place in my heart. I choose to give all these things up because of the impact farming has on the environment and because I wasn’t altogether happy with the way we treat and kill farm animals. I’m not against eating animals, per se. But I do take issue with the conditions they live and die in. But that’s a whole other story. Let’s stick to the climate part here.

A couple of years ago I gave up all animal products (except honey). No eggs, yoghurt, milk or cheese. I switched to beans, peas, lentils and mountains of green vegetables. I fought mind over matter to make this switch, giving up things I loved. But my stomach fought back. I wasn’t eating many carbohydrates, you see. And my protein and fat intake were also pretty low. I became pretty ill. My stomach started to reject almost anything I put in it. I was severely inflamed. I had no energy. My intestines were revolting, in both definitions of the word. I sought help from a dietician who actually put me back on chicken and fish to get my stomach back in order. I had to eat lots of healthy fat, fish oil and vegetables, but limit the pulses. I also had to start eating dairy again. I needed gut-bacteria yoghurt, blue cheese, hard and mature cheese and eggs. So it all seeped back into my diet. My fridge was no longer a green forest. It was a dairy counter. And I have to say, I enjoyed it. And so did my stomach. I got healthy; felt more positive and less bloated. I had energy again.

Last year I removed the fish and chicken, as well as yoghurt. But I still enjoy poached eggs on crumpets, cow’s milk in my tea and cheese with my red wine. Should I feel guilty? I make cutbacks in other areas, so surely this allows me some luxuries?

Where am I going with this? I guess my point here is about balance. I need to balance my morals – not eating cheese for the planet’s sake – with my own wants – I do love cheese. I need to ask myself whether I can balance good behaviour with bad. We all need to make these choices. And we need to be harder on ourselves. We can’t just say, “well, I love it so I’m going to carry on doing it”. What it you loved driving up and down the same steep hill in your diesel-powered, 4-wheel drive car 20 times every day just for fun? That’s pure madness. And this is the issue. Until we accept that many of today’s everyday actions are tomorrow’s madness nothing will change.

So in the spirit of change. I am giving up cheese except for on special, “treat” occasions. And I challenge you to see what things you can move to the “treat” box. Because the whole point I want to make with this blog is that, generally speaking, it’s enough to reduce. We don’t necessarily have to eradicate. OK, some things we do need to eradicate – like digging more fossil fuels out of the ground. But if everyone just cut back on luxuries, then there’d be very few things we’d have to actually eradicate.

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