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