Is Almond Milk Bad for the Planet? (+ Some Myths Debunked)

Is Almond Milk Bad for the Planet? (+ Some Myths Debunked)

First almond milk and other plant-based milks are lauded as a healthy alternative to regular milk; the next thing is they are being hailed as environmentally destructive. I exclusively drink nut milk at home (I make my own) and when I first starting hearing these claims, I decided to look into it a little more.

I want to live as sustainably as I can, and I also want to understand as much as I can about where my food comes from.

Articles with headlines like “Almond milk: quite good for you – very bad for the planet” and “Your Almond Habit Is Sucking California Dry“, published by reputable news sources (in this case, The Guardian and Mother Jones respectively), make it easy to see why many people think nut milk is bad for the planet.

But these articles don’t tell the whole story.

The headlines definitely don’t tell the whole story.

Sustainable choices are rarely completely black and white. There’s often compromise, or prioritizing one aspect of “green” over another.

If you stopped at the headline, you’d think that almond milk is bad for the planet. I want to go beyond the headline, to find out what reasons they give, and explore the rest of the story.

NB Statement quoted below were taken from this article by the Guardian.

The ‘Water’ Issue

The main environmental concern with almond milk seems to be the amount of water needed to grow almonds, coupled with the fact that most almond trees are grown in drought-hit California.

“It takes 1.1 gallons (4.16 litres) of water to grow one almond.” (The Guardian quoted this article, which stated where they obtained their data from: Mekonnen, M. M and Hoekstra, A. Y 2011.)

There are 92 almonds in a cup, which makes a litre of homemade almond milk. That means 1 litre of almond milk requires 384 litres of water to produce.

(Store-bought almond milk appears to have a much lower almond content, listed as around 2% of the total. Most brands do not list the number of almonds used per litre, but it is thought to be much less than homemade nut milks.)

“This isn’t to say cow’s milk, which takes about 100 litres of water to produce 100ml of milk, is more environmentally friendly”. (The Guardian quoted 250ml as requiring 255 litres; this source contains the research data.)

A litre of cow’s milk requires 1016 litres of water to produce.

Almond milk requires 384 litres of water per litre, and cow’s milk requires 1016 litres of water to produce, which is 2.5x more water. Almond milk is less water intensive than dairy milk.

 Environmental Impacts: the ‘Cows Versus Trees’ Issue

It is very frustrating when environmental impacts are measured on one factor alone. For many companies, using plastic is considered a more environmentally friendly option than using paper or glass, as it has a lower carbon footprint and is cheaper to transport. But when you take into account reuse-ability, recycle-ability and nenew-ability, it is a different picture.

Talking about the environmental impact of almonds based solely on water usage is only part of the story. What about the fact that almonds grow on trees, which stabilise soil, add oxygen to the atmosphere and decrease soil erosion?

Compare this with dairy cows, which are big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (methane), require huge swathes of land to produce feed, and contribute to soil erosion and waterways pollution.

Animal welfare and ethical issues aside, growing trees seems the more environmental choice over raising cows.

The ‘Location’ Issue

Almonds seem to be targeted because they are grown in California, which has been hit by drought in recent years.

“More than 80% of the world’s almond crop is grown in California.”

This means 20% is not. Australia is the second-largest almond producer. I exclusively purchase Australian almonds as they are local to me. All produce has a printed country of origin, even products purchased in bulk stores. I purchase all my nuts from The Source Bulk Foods (they have 33 stores across Australia), as they stock Australian almonds as well as other nuts from Australia.

Almonds are also grown in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. World production is 2.9 million tonnes, and the USA produces 1.8 million tonnes. There are a million+ tonnes of almonds not grown in the USA to choose from.

For all of us living outside the USA, we have the option to purchase non-Californian almonds. However, Californian almonds are definitely more common.

If low food miles and sourcing locally grown or produced food is a priority, and almonds don’t grow close to where you live, almonds might not be the best choice for you.

“Its production is not concentrated in one area of the globe.” Meaning that whilst dairy milk is produced globally, almond production is concentrated in California.

Does distribution even matter? Or is it more about scale?

In 2014 California produced 2.14 billion pounds of almonds. In the same year California produced 42.3 billion pounds of milk. Regardless of worldwide production distribution, California produces more milk than almonds, and milk has a greater water footprint than almonds.

When the water used to produce Californian almonds is dwarfed by the water used to produce Californian dairy products, it seems a little misleading to claim that it is almonds that are “sucking California dry.”

They may not be blameless, but they seem to get more blame than they deserve.

The ‘Scapegoat’ Issue

California might have a lot of almond trees, but it’s an agricultural powerhouse, growing more than 200 crop varieties including almost all of America’s apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts. It leads in the US production of avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries.

California also produces huge numbers of animal products including milk, beef cattle, eggs, sheep, turkeys, hogs and horses.

Dairy and livestock are considered far more water intensive than vegetable crops. Almonds use similar water to other nut trees (and 99% of America’s walnuts are also grown in California). “Fresh” crops like lettuce and broccoli not only need large quantities of water to produce, they need to be refrigerated and are often air-freighted to their destination.

Why do almonds get a bad rap, whilst all the banana bread bakers adding Californian walnuts to their loaves get not a single talking-to?

I wonder if it is because almond-milk drinkers are seen as trendy hipsters. I wonder if people are trying to make it into a “class” issue (if almond milk is seen as middle-class). I wonder if it is because the dairy industry has a lot of money to push towards fighting the growing nut milk industry and the potential decline of dairy milk sales.

I can make my guesses, but I can’t know for sure. I do think that almonds (and almond-milk drinkers) are unfairly targeted. The issues go much deeper.

The ‘Packaging’ Issue

It is not the growing of almonds that is so bad for the planet. It is the mass manufacture of almond milk and the global shipping to stores worldwide that is having a negative environmental impact.

Shipping water all around the globe is crazy. Most of us wouldn’t dream of buying bottled water (assuming we have drinkable water coming from the tap), but carton nut milk is 98% water. It is virtually the same thing!

Then there’s the containers. Nut milk is usually packaged in Tetra Paks, and these aren’t as easily recycled as their manufacturers would like us to think they are. Theoretically recycable is not the same as actually recycled in our town/municipality/state.

Recycable or not, they are designed to be used once only and not refilled.

Buying carton nut milk, especially one that has been manufactured overseas, is not an environmentally sound choice. From a transport (and energy) perspective, dairy milk has a lesser impact as demand is typically for fresh milk, so it is sold locally.

The great news is, it is really easy to make your own almond and other plant-based milks. I typcially make my own cashew milk and almond milk, but you can use any type of nuts. I’ve made macadamia milk, walnut milk, and brazil nut milk. I’ve even made seed milks! Experiment, and find your favourite.

Yes, seed milk is a “thing”. And they are surprisingly delicious! This one is my favourite, pumpkin seed milk.

What is the Most Environmentally Sustainable Milk Option?

At it’s heart, I don’t think this is about almonds. Or dairy cows.

The real issue here is industrial agriculture in a fragile, sensitive environment, and pursuing profit at the expense of the planet.

If you can, support local farmers, and buy products produced in your local area – or as close to your local area as possible. If you choose to drink nut milk, consider buying nuts and making your own.

If you’d rather buy packaged nut milk, look for one that has been manufactured locally (even if the ingredients are from overseas). Coconuts require far less water than other nuts, and grow in climates where rain is plentiful.

Of course, we could refuse milk entirely, dairy, almond or otherwise. We could drink black coffee. We could just drink water, which we harvested from the roof in our rainwater tank. We could… but will we? There’s the perfect world, and then there’s the real world – the one we live in.

I think it’s important to ask questions, and to try to understand where our food comes from. I think it’s valuable to understand why we make the choices we do. Sometimes our choices are less than ideal. It isn’t about being perfect. It’s about trying to do the best we can.

36 Responses to Is Almond Milk Bad for the Planet? (+ Some Myths Debunked)

  1. Thanks Lindsay for the time and energy spent putting this together. your work really helps me refine my choices and become clearer and more confident. Well done and thankyou for what you do

  2. I don’t recall the name of the company but there is one in the US that has totally gone out of the cow’s milk market and into alternative plant based milks.

  3. Amazing and informative article! Thank you for sharing your research! (Btw, just started drinking seed mylks and they are SO good! My favorite so far is sunflower seed mylk )

  4. Thanks for such a well written post. I often see similar arguments (just looking at the base carbon footprint, and not the whole environmental impact) used to defend plastic bags.

    • Thanks Elizabeth. Oooh I hear you – such a one sided argument. That’s the argument ‘Boxed Water Is Better’ (hah!) use – their very-hard-to-recycle containers use less energy to transport than glass or PET water bottles. Butthey aren’t commonly recycled, so how is that better? That’s worse! I find these kind of one-angle arguments very frustrating, and often misleading.

  5. I’m from California and my husband farms avocado and citrus in San Diego & Riverside counties, south of Los Angeles. Water is a very complex and controversial issue here & in many other parts of the world. It has been for as long as man wanted to claim rights to it.

    Good job looking into this, cause ithere is always more to one of these stories.

    In California, farmers can apply for a discounted rate, but there are a lot of avocado, citrus & almond trees that have had their water turned off. You can point your finger at the drought or many other things, but I like to focus on the housing developments with their new water meters. …and all the green lawns that remain. Too many people in this state at the expense of agriculture. Agriculture is huge in California and should be with its prime growing conditions. Less (big) houses means less people, means more water for agriculture.

    That’s just my 2cents.

    • Pat, thank you so much for this contribution to the story! Yes, you are right, water is a complex issue – well I guess most things are. Everything is interconnected, after all!

      You’re right, I didn’t touch on development at all. Here in Perth we have a similar problem. We have huge urban sprawl and everyone wanting green lawns and swimming pools, meanwhile 40% of our water is from desalination plants and we now treat sewage to make it drinkable. The energy required for these processes is immense! And yet, I could fill my 3000 litre rainwater tank with tap water for less than $5. Tap water is cheap, and people do not value it as they should.

      Thanks for raising these points! :)

  6. Well argued Lindsay! As you suggest, the factory dairy farming industry must be in a panic now that people are becoming aware of the environmental damage, as well as health and animal welfare issues with intensive dairy farming. Nut milk does seem to get a bad rap and I think your idea of buying locally produced nuts is a sound one environmentally. There’s also oat milk – I can buy local oats so I make oat milk. I like the taste of Organic Oatly too and buy that (I live in the UK), but you’re right to question whether the waxy cartons can be recycled.

    • Thanks Tracy! I think locally produced anything is a better option. Of course, sometimes it isn’t possible, but we should always try to, I think. I have been meaning to make oat milk for oh-so long! I really must get round to it. Also, I met someone who made peanut milk! Peanuts are technically legumes and grow in the ground, so don’t need much water at all. Another option ;)

      Those tetra pak type cartons aren’t recycled in Australia. Because of all the layers, it is hard to separate. The companies that make them spend an awful lot of time and effort (and no doubt money!) convincing us how green they are, and that always raises alarm bells for me…

  7. Great post, yes it would be interesting to know if the dairy industry is behind these alarming but false headlines. I drink almond, oat and soy milk. I think the whole bad rap that soy milk has has also been false and alarmist when you look into the research. Might have to move over to coconut milk though if that’s a better option from an environmental perspective.
    Thanks for all your posts. Jenni

    • Thank you Jenni… and yes it would! I’ve always avoided soy because it’s meant to be an estrogen-mimic and because it’s also one of those high allergen foods. I remember reading an article about it when I was in high school – so maybe I need to revisit that sometime!

      Coconuts tend to grow in places where rain is plentiful, and I can’t imagine there’s many chemicals used in their growth. I think carton coconut milk is about 20% coconut. My husband buys a tin of coconut milk for his coffee, that is 60% coconut. To make it the same consistency as the “coconut milk” you buy in cartons, it needs diluting with water. Saves buying the water! Another thing about coconut milk is that it doesn’t have stabilisers and gums like carton almond milk, so less additives. Just an fyi ;)

      • Good point! I try to avoid major sources of soy, because most soy is GMO meaning it is aerial sprayed with glyphosate (round up) and there are likely traces of the herbicide that remain. Glyphosate has been shown to disrupt gut flora balance as gut bacteria have the same metabolic pathway found in plants that round up targets. Which means that soy isn’t a great health choice or environmental choice because of the way it’s grown unfortunately

  8. Great arguments, Lindsay. There are a lot of problems with the majority of our produce (and almonds) coming from California. Monocrops are not healthy to begin with. When it comes to almonds, almond trees can be grown in the majority of the country and I feel if a few people in each location planted a couple of trees there would be enough to go around and the transportation costs would decrease. I have two almond trees here in Pennsylvania that will produce all my almond needs and then some. We get enough rain that I never have to water my fruit and nut trees either.

    Also the almond crops in California have to be pollinated by bees trucked in which adds to the cost.

    My argument is that decentralizing our food production would be better for the environment and add more security to our food supply no matter what the food is.

    • Lois! So good to hear from you :) Ah, I agree completely. There are so many more blog posts that could be written on the subject. This whole industrial production of our food, and disconnect with where our food comes from – that’s a whole other issue. I love that you have two almond trees. We have an almond tree in our local park but the parrots made light work of those almonds before I could get a single one. Luckily I have fared much better with the pecan tree next to it – I’m thinking I will get a couple of kilos from the pecans by the end of the season. The cockatoos and crows are helping themselves, but they don’t like getting them from the ground – and I don’t want to climb the tree. A symbiotic relationship :)

      Hope your garden is going well :)

      • I looked at planting a pecan tree but it takes so long for them to mature enough to produce that I don’t know if I would even be able to live here then.

  9. Loved reading your article Lindsay, especially because you researched it well and gave the bigger picture. Have you seen ‘Queen Bee’? (I think that’s what it’s called), it’s about how they transport bees to fertilise the almond tree flowers’ around America. The bees are stacked up on pallets which are then wrapped in glad wrap and put on the back of trucks to be dropped off at the almond plantations. They have to do this because growing monocultures reduced the number of bees at the plantations. Just another aspect to consider when weighing up the environmental impact of US produced almonds versus cow’s milk. Cheers for reading! Jacqui x

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