Almond Milk vs. Cow's Milk: Which Is More Environmentally Friendly?

Glass and bottles of milk with raw almonds on table

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As the environmental impacts of cattle farming have come to light over the past decade, cow's milk sales have experienced a steep and continuous decline.

Data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that dairy milk consumption fell by 12% between 2013 and 2017 while consumption of plant-based alternatives increased by 33% over that same period. A May 2022 report revealed that sales of cow's milk were still dropping, down 3.4% from the year before.

Although conventional milk still proves to be a significantly more lucrative industry than alternative milk—"alt milk"—almond milk's popularity is increasing at a rapid rate. In 2018, almond milk accounted for 64% of the non-dairy milk market and the global market size is expected to grow a further 14% by 2025.

Both almond milk and cow's milk have received criticism for being environmentally unfriendly, but which is greener? Here's a breakdown of each milk type's impact, from water consumption to emissions.

Environmental Impact of Almond Milk

Bowl of raw almonds and glass of milk on wooden surface

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Almond milk is the most popular alt milk by far. It was valued at $5.2 billion globally in 2018 and expected to reach $13.25 billion by 2025.

The main environmental concerns surrounding almond milk production involve pesticide use and water consumption, especially considering most almond orchards are grown in a severely drought-stricken region of California.

Water Use

Almond milk's biggest downfall is poor water efficiency. The average almond tree consumes 41 to 44 inches of water throughout the year—and the California Central Valley, where 80% of the world's almond supply comes from, receives only 5 to 20 inches of rain annually.

This means a lot of the water used for almond farming comes from underground aquifers. In agriculture, surface and groundwater are referred to as "blue water," and the almond industry has used so much of it that the land in California's San Joaquin Valley has dropped by as much as 28 feet since the 1920s.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that almonds grow best in hot, dry climates. California is facing "unprecedented drought conditions," the state's Department of Water Resources says, with "reservoirs at or near historic lows." That perpetual state of dryness is a leading cause of increased wildfires.

Land Use

Aerial view of almond orchard in bloom

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Almond orchards occupy 1.5 million acres in central California, which is 13% of the state's irrigated farmland. Almonds grow on trees that are planted in rows and require care all year long, as opposed to other alt milk crops that are slashed after harvest to make space for other crops in their off-season. The latter is healthier for the soil.

Almond trees can live for 25 years, which means farmers don't have the liberty to scale back production during times of water scarcity. Their long lifespans also make them more susceptible than seasonal crops to pests like the peach twig borer.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

One of the benefits of almond growing is that the almond trees absorb carbon dioxide. It has the lowest emissions of any milk type—dairy and non-dairy—amounting to roughly a third of a pound of greenhouse gas per cup.

That estimate, however, covers only the carbon footprint of almond milk production and not distribution. Because 80% of the world's almonds come from California, a beverage made from U.S. almonds sold in the U.K. must travel more than 5,000 miles—a definite snag on the product's favorable emissions record.

Pesticides and Fertilizers

Pesticides and insecticides are widely used on the trees to deter the pesky peach twig borer, a type of moth that's been plaguing U.S. almond orchards since the 1880s, and other pests. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation keeps tabs on chemical use across all crops and listed more than 450 pesticides for almonds alone in a 2018 report.

These harsh chemicals leach into the soil and wind up in groundwater reservoirs and waterways. Many mimic fish hormones and affect wildlife reproduction. Experts have linked pesticides and herbicides from agricultural runoff to fish population declines.

Animal Exploitation

Bee hives amid blooming almond trees

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Unlike cow's milk, almond milk doesn't come directly from an animal, but bees are an essential part of the growing process. Every year, from January to March, an estimated 1.6 million traveling honey bee colonies are schlepped to central California on trucks to pollinate almond trees. The trip awakes them prematurely from their winter slumber, throwing off their natural circadian rhythms.

Experts believe this stresses the bees out and makes them more vulnerable to diseases and viruses. What's more, the bees are forced to pollinate during a period when pesticide use is especially rampant. In 2016, an estimated 9% of commercial bee colony loss was attributed to pesticide exposure.

Is Almond Milk Vegan?

Almond milk is vegan in that it doesn't contain any animal products. But commercial bees are needed to pollinate the almond trees, and they often suffer from the process, so many animal rights advocates choose to avoid it regardless.

Environmental Impact of Cow's Milk

Worker depositing cow's milk in a gallon jug

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Gone are the days when cow's milk was the only option in the supermarket. Now, with all the alt milk varieties of modern times—almond, oat, soy, rice, hemp, coconut—non-dairy milks sometimes occupy just as much shelf space.

Still, dairy milk is a booming market worth $16.12 billion in the U.S. and $481.1 billion globally (93 times the value of almond milk). Besides being the most conventional option, it's also the most widely available. Some experts in the medical field maintain that it's healthier than many non-dairy alternatives, too.

But out of all milk types, cow's milk draws the most criticism from environmentalists and animal rights advocates because of greenhouse emissions and the often-terrible conditions dairy cows are kept in. Here's a breakdown of dairy milk's environmental impact.

Water Use

While 15 gallons of water are needed to produce a cup of almond milk—based on estimates of three gallons of water per almond and five almonds per cup—48 gallons are needed to produce a cup of cow's milk.

Dairy farming is an incredibly water-intensive process, considering cows drink between 30 and 50 gallons of water per day. On a lighter note, studies show that an average of 85% of the water dairy cows drink is "green" (rainwater). Only 8% of it is blue. Of course, the ratio varies depending on where farms are located.

Land Use

Aerial view of large modern dairy farm and farm land

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Deforestation is a major topic associated with cattle farming. In fact, cattle farming is often called the main culprit of deforestation in the world's largest and most biodiverse rainforest. Why? Because cows eat soy, and soy grows abundantly in the Amazon.

Cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest (either to make room for soy crops or grazing land for the cows themselves) and 340 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That's 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of deforestation, the Amazon is no longer able to absorb more carbon dioxide than it releases.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The top environmental criticism of cow's milk is—hands down—its greenhouse gas emissions. Anyone who's watched the documentary "Cowspiracy" knows that cows release methane through their burps and farts. This methane is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and it has a longer-lasting effect. The U.S. Environmental Defense Fund says, "methane sets the pace for warming in the near term."

Yet there are around 1.5 billion cows on the planet.

Researchers at Oxford University have put emissions per cup of cow's milk at 0.6 kilograms (or 1.3 pounds). That's three times the emissions of any plant-based milk.

Pesticides and Fertilizers

Non-organic dairy farms may feed their cattle soy and other feed, including the grass they graze on, treated with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. Equally prevalent are antibiotics.

Farmers will give calves antibiotics during weaning to prevent infections. And while the dairy industry maintains that every glass of milk sold in supermarkets is guaranteed to be antibiotic-free, the widespread use of antibiotics has led the cows to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which may transfer to humans when they drink cow's milk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes milk as one of the sources of antibiotic-resistant infections. The USDA's National Residue Program aims to prevent these antibiotic-resistant bacteria from presenting in the final milk product.

Animal Exploitation

Dairy cows being milked in an industrial setting

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Of course, one can't weigh the impact of almond milk versus cow's milk without acknowledging the welfare issues surrounding animal agriculture. Although milking cows doesn't always hurt them, cattle are subjected to a world of suffering at the hands of the dairy industry.

"Repeated reimpregnation, short calving intervals, overproduction of milk, restrictive housing systems, poor nutrition, and physical disorders impair the welfare of the animals in industrial dairy operations," a Humane Society report says.

Dairy cows produce an average of 23,000 pounds of milk per year for up to five years. When they're done producing, they are most often culled for ground beef despite being able to live for 20-plus years. In 2018, 21% of the U.S.'s commercial beef supply came from the dairy sector.

Which Is Better, Almond or Cow's Milk?

Almond milk appears to be greener than cow's milk in almost every sector with the potential exception of water use and pesticides and fertilizers. Although cows need three times more water to produce a glass of milk than almond orchards would need to produce the same amount, almonds get theirs from essential underground aquifers that are rapidly drying up in the parched state of California.

Still, it's clear that greenhouse gases are the leading cause of global warming, and cows emit an excess of a gas that has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. Studies show that animal agriculture represents about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the leading causes of climate change. The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that a vegan diet has the most greenhouse gas mitigation potential.

That said, almond milk might not be the most environmentally friendly alt milk option. It's impossible to declare just one type "the best" because of the many ways they're grown, produced, and distributed, but oat milk is widely regarded as a consistently safe bet. Oat milk often wins over almond milk because growing oats is generally more water-efficient, better for the land and soil, and requires no animal involvement.

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