Coconut Milk vs. Almond Milk: Which Is More Environmentally Friendly?

coconut milk vs almond milk

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Coconut milk and almond milk have long been available as dairy alternatives for the lactose intolerant, but as the climate crisis worsens, an increasing number of people are reaching for them to reduce their environmental impact.

It's true that both are much easier on the planet than the traditional milk derived from water-guzzling, methane-billowing cattle. Yet, neither have a particularly good reputation among sustainability sticklers. One is linked to widespread deforestation and unethical labor practices; the other has been blamed for the California drought.

Here's a breakdown of how each impacts the planet, plus its effect on local wildlife and humans.

Environmental Impact of Coconut Milk

Close-up of young coconuts in a tree

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Coconut milk is an ancient ingredient used widely in international cuisines. Today, it's available by carton or can—the former more watered-down and therefore suitable for drinking and the latter used mostly for cooking.

Coconut milk, the fourth most popular alt milk type in the U.S. as of 2020, is expected to experience 13.9% global market growth between 2021 and 2028. Economists attribute the growth projection to the vegan movement.

Coconut milk is much less polluting and water-intensive than cow's milk—coconuts even grow on carbon-sequestering trees—but is criticized for its land use and labor practices.

Water Use

Compared to other crops, coconut trees (Cocos nucifera, members of the palm family) require minimal water. Their water requirements vary based on the soil and climate they grow in, but sufficient rainfall in the tropics where they grow ensures at least a third of their daily intake is "green" (naturally occurring).

Other milk types—particularly dairy and almond—rely heavily on "blue" water, which is taken from surface and groundwater.

Land Use

Aerial shot of large coconut plantation

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The impact coconut production has on land and wildlife is the commodity's biggest pitfall. As of 2020, the amount of land dedicated to coconut cultivation was 30.4 million acres globally. For reference, oil palm crops (for palm oil, that is) occupied 47 million acres.

Coconut products are often compared to palm oil because they wreak a similar amount of havoc on important ecosystems. In fact, despite palm oil's terrible reputation, the impact of coconut cultivation on wildlife is worse.

Using data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, researchers estimate that coconut threatens 18.33 species per million tons of oil produced (coconut milk and coconut oil are both made from coconut meat). That's an astounding 14.21 more species per million tons than threatened by olive oil production, 14.54 more species per million tons than threatened by palm oil production, and 17.05 more species per million tons than threatened by soybean production.

Those threatened species include the Solomon Islands' Ontong Java flying fox (critically endangered), the Philippines' Balabac mouse-deer (endangered), and Indonesia's Sangihe tarsier (endangered) and Cerulean paradise flycatcher (critically endangered).

As global demand for coconut milk grows, as is expected, these species are likely to face even more environmental pressures.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Coconut farming—pre-milk production—is relatively eco-friendly on the emissions front. The trees themselves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a strategy scientists have identified as key in climate change mitigation. Because they live so long, about 50 to 90 years, they excel at protecting soil carbon and ultimately act as carbon reservoirs for over half a century.

Areas like the Caribbean have even used coconut trees as a means of offsetting their greenhouse gas emissions while also reaping the benefits of an increasingly lucrative crop.

After the coconuts have been harvested, the emissions ramp up quite a bit as they would with any milk type. You have the production process itself to consider, plus the emissions generated from distributing the coconuts and coconut products from where they grow—in Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and so forth—to practically every corner of the world.

Pesticides and Fertilizers

The long lifespan of coconut trees is great for carbon storing but less than ideal for pests and diseases. The longer a crop lives, the more susceptible it is to threats; insects know they can feast on the trees without being hurried away at the end of the season.

For this reason, some growers will use pesticides and other synthetic chemicals. Thankfully, threats can be evaded naturally through intercropping and organic methods. The coconut supplier CoViCo, for instance, places coconut husks around the trees as fertilizer. The husks also provide shelter for snakes, which serve as natural predators for some pests.

Ethics of Coconut Production

Monkey on a leash climbing coconut tree

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Animal lovers might be horrified to learn that monkeys are sometimes used for labor on coconut plantations. Because they're expert climbers, pig-tailed macaques are trained to clamber up the lofty palms and pick the fruit. A PETA investigation revealed that these problematic methods were still commonplace on Thai coconut plantations as of 2021. When they aren't working, the monkeys are kept in chains and abused.

PETA says Chaokoh, a leading manufacturer of coconut products worldwide, does use forced monkey labor. It has published a list of those that don't, though, including Daiya Foods, Follow Your Heart, So Good, and Nature's Way.

When monkeys aren't being used, it often comes down to human coconut pickers to shake down the fruit for less than a dollar a day. Fair Trade USA says coconut farmers are "deeply impoverished" in the top-producing countries of Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. Although the demand for coconut products is growing, farmers have little funds to invest in expanding their crops, leading them even further into poverty.

You can ensure that the workers behind your coconut milk are paid fairly by purchasing only Fair Trade coconut.

Environmental Impact of Almond Milk

Close-up of almond ripening in the sun on California orchard

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Although coconut continues to grow in popularity, almond milk still reigns over the global alt milk market. Unlike coconut, though, the environmental issues surrounding almond farming are widely known.

Water Use

Almond milk's biggest problem is water use. These drupes require an incredible amount of H2O, a precious and finite resource where most of them grow.

Roughly 80% of the world's almonds are grown in an especially parched region of California known as the Central Valley. It gets anywhere between 5 and 20 inches of precipitation per year, and the average almond tree needs 36 inches per season. It's the most water-intensive nondairy milk crop by far.

In California, a state that now regularly experiences years-long droughts thanks to climate change, almond orchards are irrigated with water from underground aquifers. So much groundwater has been used for agriculture that the land is physically sinking—by as much as 28 inches over the past hundred years.

Land Use

Barren almond trees planted in rows

Daniel Osterkamp / Getty Images

Almonds are California's largest agricultural export, and the state dedicates 1.5 million acres—13% of its irrigated farmland—to the crop. The Central Valley has long been an agricultural hotspot, and there's no indication that wildlife habitat has been cleared for almond orchards. At the same time, monoculture isn't exactly conducive to a healthy ecosystem.

Almond trees can live for 25 years, meaning nothing else grows between the blossom-to-harvest season. This is called monocropping, and experts say it's not ideal for soil nutrition. They also say large monoculture tree crop plantations could be disruptive to wildlife.

Important pollinators like hoverflies and bees, for example, prefer what researchers have called "complex" agricultural landscapes—i.e., those containing a diverse array of vegetation. In a 2015 study, these pollinators were found near almond trees only when the almond trees were within 100 meters of native mallee.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Like coconut trees, almond trees are beneficial in that they absorb carbon dioxide. However, the fact that both coconuts and almonds grow in very specific, warm environments and must be shipped around the world might counteract the benefits of their CO2-sequestering abilities.

In the case of Blue Diamond—manufacturer of the leading almond milk brand, Almond Breeze—the beverage is likely to be processed in HP Hood's New England factories, where refrigerated Blue Diamond goods are made. That would mean the almonds travel 3,000 miles before they even make it into a beverage carton. Then, one must factor in the additional emissions from distribution as they're shipped from New England to Almond Breeze retailers globally.

Pesticide Use

Also like coconut plantations, almond plantations are more prone to pests and diseases than polyculture crops. The almond tree, in particular, has been known to attract the peach twig borer, and farmers go to great lengths to prevent the moth's mass destruction. A 2017 report from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation revealed that almond trees were treated with more pesticides than any other California crop that year.

One of the most common insecticides used, methoxyfenozide, has been shown to be toxic to bees.

Almonds and Animal Agriculture

Commercial beehives with blooming almond tees in background

Douglas Keister / Getty Images

A big reason why pesticide use in almond growing is so harmful is because almond trees require pollination from bees. Chemicals like methoxyfenozide (and a multitude of others) can kill pollinators, an extremely important group of animals that are already in peril. Researchers say pesticides cause 9% of bee colony loss every year.

Pesticides aside, the almond industry's reliance on bees puts a great amount of stress on the pollinators. Every bloom season—the time when pesticide use is highest, no less—1.6 million commercial bee colonies are schlepped across the country to the Central Valley, where farmers coax them out of their winter dormancy two months early to fertilize the almond blossoms.

After the great almond pollination, they're transferred to another crop, then another, and another. The exhaustion this demanding cycle causes makes bees more susceptible to disease and illness from contact with toxic substances.

Which Is Better, Coconut or Almond Milk?

Glass bottle of coconut milk surrounded by raw coconuts

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Irresponsible production of either milk type has tremendous impacts on the environment, but coconut milk arguably has more potential to be sustainable. That the vast majority of the world's almond trees grow only where water is scarce means that farmers must continue draining underground aquifers to sustain their crops, and that's a practice that will have great consequences.

Coconut production, so long as it's Fair Trade and isn't fueling deforestation, can be sustainable and actually economically beneficial to low- and middle-income communities. It's important, as a consumer, to buy organic, ethically sourced coconut products. Support certified B Corporations and companies that do not use monkey labor, which are listed clearly on PETA's website.

Coconut milk is also entirely vegan-friendly when animals aren't being used to pick the fruit, whereas large-scale almond production will always rely on commercial beekeeping.

Whichever milk you choose, the real takeaway is to value the product and avoid overconsumption of it. Expansion of coconut plantations is unsustainable. So, offset your coconut milk consumption with oat milk, one of the most sustainable milk types, or drink less milk in general.

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