The Environmental Impacts of Dairy vs. Plant Based Milk

The Environmental Impacts of Dairy vs. Plant Based Milk

The Environmental Impacts of Milk

It doesn’t matter if you can’t drink dairy, don’t like the taste, or are trying to direct your life towards a more environmentally friendly way of living; chances are you’ve tried some type of plant based milk option. Chances also are that you’ve heard talk about almond milk actually being worse for the environment than dairy is. Well, I did as much research as I could on this topic over the last couple weeks and put what I found in this post. Hopefully after reading this you can come to a conclusion on what is best for you, and for this planet we love so dearly. We’ll be going through the four main types of milk; dairy, almond, oat, and soy. Each will be broken down into three different categories; Emissions, water consumption, and land usage.


Alright so we’ll start with the OG, the day one, the reason Wisconsin is relevant, the dairy milk. It’s good for your bones and it’s used in basically everything. The worldwide dairy industry is worth over 600 billion US dollars, and is expected to grow to $840 billion by 2028(1). That’s a lot of freaking cows. As you may know, cows poop, and fart, and burp. This all contributes to the production of greenhouse gas emissions, with milk production alone contributing 2.9% of all “human-induced” greenhouse gasses(2). It sounds small, but according to, the American demand for dairy milk leads to the same production of CO2 as 9.2 MILLION cars. And that’s just CO2! Cows produce more methane than Carbon Dioxide, so you can only imagine.

Now onto the water consumption side of it. The whole reason that anti-plant based milk people bash on almond milk for. Yes, almonds are thirsty little buggers, but the almond milk industry is puny in comparison to dairy, and cows drink buttloads of water. They also eat a lot of crops, which also need water. People seem to forget about that part. All in all, the dairy industry takes up 19% of all animal contributed water consumption, and if you need that in easier numbers, it’s just under 24 gallons of water per cup of milk(2). In fact, most cows drink up to 40 gallons of water per day(3). When the largest dairy farms in the United States are home to over 15,000 cows, we’re talking over half a million gallons of water every day. And if we really want to get into the gritty little details, we can talk about the pollution of local water sources as well. This includes manure production, pesticides used on crops to feed the cows, etc. Not fun.

Lastly, we will talk about the land used for dairy production. You’ll notice a common theme here, and it’s that this industry is absolutely massive. It uses a lot of water, it produces a lot of greenhouse gasses, and it takes up a lot of land. The most recent number I could find in my not-so-extensive research was from 2017, where there was 900 million acres of land being home to our precious bovine friends(4) which equates to about 1.4 million square miles.

So, there’s three more types of milk to talk about, but I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that plain old dairy milk is by far the worst type of milk for the environment. Aside from the enormity of this industry, it’s still very bad if we’re comparing apples to apples.


This is the second largest on this list, and it’s only a 14 billion dollar industry. Let’s just sit down and think about the difference in sizes here. Some say size doesn’t matter, but here it kinda does. Sorry. And I know all you skeptics out there are going to want to compare everything equally, so I’ll do my best to do the math for you. If I’m wrong, you can check my sources.

Starting with greenhouse gas emissions, there isn’t much data out there. I found a real nifty graph made up by that compares all the types of milk we will be looking at today and put them in Carbon Dioxide equivalent measurements(5). This fancy term essentially means that we are looking at the greenhouse gasses produced by an item, and putting it in terms equivalent to the effect of CO2. So, dairy is at 0.8 kg CO2e, and almond milk is the lowest on the list for the four types we have on our own list, sitting at 0.18 kg CO2e.

Secondly we have water consumption, let’s just say it’s bad. Not as bad as dairy, but still pretty freaking bad. Especially when you think about the fact that most almonds used for almond milk come from California, which already has basically no water. It takes 15 gallons of water to produce 16 almonds(6), so basically a 1:1 ratio. Per cup of almond milk, about 4 almonds are used. To grow those almonds we can round up and say 4 gallons of water, plus a little less than a cup of water to make it a liquid and not just powdered almonds. Compared to the 23.8 gallons of water used to produce a single cup of dairy milk, that’s not too shabby. HOWEVER, like I mentioned previously, this is all taking place in California. Again, pesticides are used, so there’s some pollution taking place. This paired with the amount of water it takes to produce almonds, they’re probably the most anti-California thing in existence. 

Sticking to our theme, we’re finishing the almond milk portion off with the amount of land used. As of July 2023, 23,0000 acres of land were being used for almond milk. 16,000 acres of that were previously wetlands(6). Awesome. We love almond milk. On to the next.


I may be biased, but it really isn’t any contest for which of these milks is the best. Oat milk takes the cake, it tastes the best, it’s the best for the environment, and you should all be putting it in your coffee.

The one downside to oat milk is the emissions output. Again - and I know I sound like a broken record here, but I really feel the need to drive this point home - it’s not as bad as dairy. If we look at the nifty little graph I mentioned, it’s the next highest above almond milk at 0.22 kg CO2e(5). Still below soy milk and much further down than dairy, so not nearly the worst on the list. But, if you ever get into an argument with a drunk family member over Christmas about this, the carbon emissions of oat milk is probably what they’ll bring up.

Oat milk uses very little water in the production process. It takes 48 liters of water to produce one liter of oat milk(7). Since that means virtually nothing to our little American brains, one liter is just over 0.25 gallons, so 48 liters of water would be 12.6 gallons to produce one quart of milk. Not great, but one of the better options we have. Aside from the amount of water used to produce this type of milk, we once again need to talk about pesticides. Just as any other crop, pesticides are used and pollute the surrounding environment. For any of these milks, if you buy organic, you are avoiding the problem, but you’re also spending more money.

As for land use, oat milk requires 80% less land than dairy does(8). This isn’t saying total land space used, we’re talking per gallon of milk produced. It still takes up a ton of land, but we’re moving in the right direction here. That’s all I got on this one.


The original plant based milk alternative. We don’t know why you like it so much and when I made the graphic for the Instagram post, everyone was confused on why pickles are included in the list. Nobody knows what a soybean is and nobody really cares, but it’s a big one and we’re going to include it.

Emissions from Soy milk are second highest behind dairy. They’re sitting at a healthy 0.25 kg CO2e(5), which I know still means nothing to you, so let's put it into words that our caveman brains can comprehend. One glass of Soy milk is equivalent to 0.8 miles of driving. This isn’t really something most people think about, and when put into words it really doesn’t sound too bad. For comparison, one glass of dairy milk is equivalent to just under 2.4 miles of driving. So, the worst milk to emissions ratio for a plant based alternative on this list is still one third of what dairy milk produces.

Soy milk also uses quite a bit more water than oat milk, ranking #2 again on our list at 267 liters of water for one liter of milk. American brain numbers make about 70 gallons of water to produce 0.26 gallons of milk. Other sources do say that Soybeans consume 1/10 of the water that almonds do(10), so this ones more up in the air. The first statistic is related to the actual production of soy milk, while the second is related to how much water the plants themselves need.

Okay, so the land use is where we really run into issues with Soy milk. They take up a lot of land, and a good portion of said land is our great love formerly known as the Amazon rainforest. Over 400 square miles of the Amazon have been felled for Soy bean production(11), and these farms are in more than just the Amazon. Soy milk requires an astronomical amount of land. According to Bastyr University, it takes one square mile of land to produce a single liter of soy milk(10). So, if you’re going to buy soy milk, make sure you’re buying organic, U.S. grown soybeans. It still isn’t great, but at least you aren’t supporting deforestation in this way. Maybe in other ways, but that’ll be a topic for another day.


That was a whole load of not so fun information. Nothing is good for the environment when we’re talking about food and agriculture, especially when this much water is being used and polluted. However, we can finally put the argument to rest that Almond milk is actually worse for the environment than dairy, we also know that supporting organic farming is a major step in the right direction. Whether you’re lactose intolerant or you’re like me and just think cow’s milk is disgusting, you can feel good about choosing really any of these options. If you haven’t made the swap yet, maybe give it a try. Let us know what you think, and have a great winter, if it ever happens.

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    11. -  deforestation-free-soya-still-tearing-down-the-amazon



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