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Cow's Milk Comes At An Environmental Cost

10/30/2015 03:40 EDT | Updated 10/30/2016 05:12 EDT
Faba-Photograhpy via Getty Images
Cow on field

The last time I was in California, I noticed that most cafes had posted signs reading "Serious water problems. Water served on request." At first, I was impressed: the drought problem in California is a serious one and there's no doubt that having restaurants try to do their part to preserve natural resources is a good thing. But they could do a lot better by simply replacing cow's milk with soy milk or, at the very least, by removing those fifty cents surcharges for non-dairy milk.

In the last decade, many independent coffee shops and even chains have taken a commitment to responsible coffee sourcing by offering fair-trade coffee. The next step in their engagement toward social justice is to replace cow's milk with a non-dairy alternative.

The real cost of cow's milk

When we compare the water footprint of soy milk and cow's milk, we find that the water production footprint of one litre of cow's milk is more than three times that of soy milk: 1,050 liters compared to 297 liters according to a dutch study published in 2012.

Replacing cow's milk with soy milk would not only be a good thing for water preservation, it's also a wise choice to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent analysis into GHG emissions across the top food commodities in the UK found that the heavy footprint of dairy products justified the recommendation to switch from cow's milk to soy milk. It turns out that everything we've been hearing for years about the environmental impact of beef production also applies to dairy cows: they require large areas of fertile agricultural land and huge amount of energy to feed, they produce a nearly criminal amount of waste, and they're a major emitter of methane. Dairy production is slightly more energy-efficient than raising cattle for meat, since each individual cow lives a longer life -- meaning that the resources used to raise them to adulthood are more effectively invested -- but it will never be as clean as growing crops.

In 2006, the Cornell University scientist David Pimentel found that it takes around 14 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of milk protein on a conventional farm, and that organically produced milk require about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy per calorie of milk produced. By comparison, Pimentel's research shows that between 0.26 and 0.31 calories of fossil fuel are used to make one calorie of soybeans. About 34 per cent of the calories in soy come from protein, making the production of protein from soy inarguably more energy-efficient than producing animal protein.

Despite its impressive environmental resume, however, soy is far from being the darling of the environmental movement. The vast majority of soybeans are genetically modified, and it is widely known that soy monoculture crops have caused shocking damage to the Amazon rainforest. Those facts are true, but when we unpack them further, we find that about 85 per cent of the world's soybean crop is processed into meal and vegetable oil used in animal feed. The good news is, soybeans used in human food production (for products like tofu, tempeh, and soymilk) are almost all from organic or non-gmo crops. The more people who switch from animal protein sources to protein from soy foods, the lower the global demand for soy will actually become.

A healthy choice

Drinking soy lattes instead of "regular" lattes not only makes sense on an environmental standpoint, it's also a healthier choice. Dairy products contain hormones, allergens, lactose, saturated fat, cholesterol, and pesticides, all of which are linked to a number of health problems. Dairy farmers have repeatedly lectured us that we should consume as much dairy as possible, but Harvard researchers makes it clear: "There is little, if any, evidence that eating dairy prevents osteoporosis or fractures, and there is considerable evidence that high dairy product consumption is associated with increased risk of fatal prostate and possibly even ovarian cancers." It is also important to note that about 75 per cent of the world's population, including 25 per cent of those in the U.S. and Canada, lose their lactase enzymes as young children.

And while there is a lot of controversy on the effect of soy on human health, most of the articles condemning soy have a common source, the Weston A. Price Foundation -- a body with a long history of promoting raw milk and animal fats. Meanwhile, large cancer organizations like the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research agree that two to three servings per day of whole soy foods are safe and healthy. No serious study has linked soy consumption to fertility problems, nor to any sort of thyroid dysfunction in healthy adults, even when it's regularly consumed for several years.

The default option

Given the high price of cow's milk, it's surprising that most cafes still charge an extra for alternatives. Tim Hortons and McDonald's don't even offer alternatives to cow's milk in most of their locations, a surprising reality given the supposed commitments to environmental issues announced by those corporations. Given all the facts, offering only cow's milk or selling its alternative for a higher price is akin to selling only leaded gasoline when a more sustainable alternative is easily accessible. Just as we've made unleaded gasoline the go-to option at the gas pump, plant-based milks should become the default option in cafés and restaurants.

Those who wish to stick with the environmentally-unfriendly alternative that is cow's milk should be obliged to pay an extra cost, not the other way around. We've been brave enough to remove glasses of water from cafe tables -- we now have a duty to take the much more impactful action of switching cow's milk for soy milk. I for one will definitely be supporting the first café I walk past with a sign out the front reading: "Serious water problems. Lattes now served with soy milk".

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