‘Alternative Milks’ – Coming Soon to a Faculty Near You?

Do you remember your first google search back in January? If you weren’t too busy browsing through the photos from Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth’s secret wedding, then you may have, like many people, found yourself searching for vegan alternatives to your favourite meals. The amount of people searching online for advice on how to live a vegan lifestyle spikes every January, as people commit themselves to ‘Veganuary’ – or, if they’re feeling particularly adventurous, make the resolution to go vegan all year round. This year, with the intensification of the discourse around climate change and environmental issues, there were more of these searches than ever before, most notably when it came to the not-so tricky business of replacing milk.

The popularity of vegan and plant-based milks has been growing for a number of years now, as more and more people turn their back on the dairy industry and opt for the likes of coconut milk or oat milk instead. But aside from the sogginess of your morning Weetabix, what impact is the popularity of these so-called ‘alternative milks’ having on the wider environment? Back in February, the BBC asked themselves the same question and came to the conclusion that the production of plant-based milks requires less water and land per square metre, and that it also produces significantly lower emissions in the process. In fact, the BBC made the startling claim that “producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy milks.”

Although some may find such a statistic hard to swallow, the BBC’s conclusion was based on a peer reviewed study conducted by University of Oxford researcher Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek of the Agroecology and Environment Research Division in Zurich, Switzerland. The study, entitled ‘Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers’, analysed the environmental impact of 40 major food products across numerous stages of their production, including processing, packaging and transportation. After analysing data from 40,000 farms and 1,600 processors, they found that “the impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins across Green House Gas emissions, eutrophication, acidification (excluding nuts), and frequently land use.” As such, Poore and Nemecek recommended that “switching current diets to a diet which excludes animal products would have a transformative impact on the environment.”

Enter Jen, a PhD student in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Leeds, and administrative member of the Leeds University Union Veg Society. After reading Poore and Nemecek’s study, Jen noticed that the majority of the milk being used and shared by fellow staff members in her school was dairy. And since numerous studies have argued that drinking and producing dairy milk is significantly worse for the environment than plant-based alternatives, Jen found the popularity of dairy milk in her school’s staff kitchen to be something which “seemed at odds with a Faculty that researches, among other things, climate change.” 

Inspired to make a change in her school, Jen decided to leave some alternative milk options in the Faculty of Environment’s staff kitchen on Tuesday 7th May, in an effort to encourage her co-workers to reconsider their milk choices, both at work and at home. With a small amount of funding from the LUU Veg Society, Jen placed cartons of soya, oat, rice and almond milk from Alpro and Dream on the worktop for her co-workers to try out with their instant coffees and Yorkshire teas. The alternative milks were free to try, and Jen invited staff members to write down their comments and thoughts on the experiment for everyone to see; Jen subsequently spent the majority of the day thinking of inventive excuses to visit the kitchen as many times as possible.

To Jen’s relief, her display had an overwhelmingly positive response. Most staff members who tended to drink dairy commented on how they were unaware about the extent of its impact on the environment until they saw the chart, and how they would now consider making a change to their milk purchases. Those who had already made the switch to plant-based milks in their diets praised Jen for spreading the news, while those who had never tried the substitute milks before commented on how they tasted infinitely better than they would ever have expected. The variety of milk available in staff kitchens, understandably, isn’t really a top priority for the University of Leeds, so most people seemed grateful that a staff member had taken it upon themselves to kick-start the conversation.

“I think seeing the graph in black and white has definitely made me want to consider making some changes to the products I buy. It also helps that the oat milk is delicious!”

Motivated by the extent of such positive and considerate feedback, Jen decided to take her experiment further, sharing a photo of the display on one of the largest vegan pages on Facebook. Within a few days, the post had thousands of likes and shares, with many users echoing the staff members in praising Jen for taking the initiative to share the milks and the findings of the study with her colleagues. Almost inevitably, there was also a host of neigh-sayers complaining that the alternative milks weren’t ‘real milk’ and were therefore, by some strange stretch of the imagination, ‘unnatural’. Nevertheless, the overall message was a favourable one, with numerous Facebook users commenting that they were going to replicate Jen’s experiment in their own offices across the country. Buoyed by this enthusiasm, Jen and LUU Veg Society are looking to branch out to more faculties at Leeds in the hope that, if these alternative milks become normalised at work, then they will too at home.

“I’m already committed to non-dairy milk but I’m really glad this is finally happening after many people have raised this issue several times and administration have rejected it on ridiculous grounds.”

Jen’s actions are just part and parcel of a number of student activities which have taken place on campus this year, to get the University and the Union to address environmental issues at every stage of administration. The much maligned presence of plastic water bottles in the Union’s Co-op has been a talking point for months now, but a student also suggested at one of the LUU Better Forums this year that almond milk – which requires more water to produce than other alternative milks – should be banned from the coffee outlets at Leeds. Although most people agreed that it should be an individual’s choice what milk they want with their skinny-caramel-frappé-iced-strawless-latte, there is a case to be made over whether food and drink outlets should do more to educate students and staff on the environmental impact of their milk choices.

Because, as Jen’s experiment has proved, people respond more positively when being asked to make their own informed decision rather than when that decision is made for them without their consent. And it is crucial that that information is there in the first place. As Jen also commented, when organising events and room bookings at University of Leeds, the conference and events office only provides soya milk as an alternative to dairy, and it would be great to see more of a variety to the milk options on offer. Plus, the argument that purchasing more types of milk would be financially unsound seems rather mute when you consider the fact that plant-based milks have a much better shelf life to their dairy counterparts.

“Great idea! I’m going to switch to oat milk – if I can convince my kids!”

So, don’t be surprised if you stumble across some new forms of milk in your office or home kitchen some time very soon. Don’t take it as a personal attack to your life choices, but see it as an opportunity to try something new and maybe, just maybe, save the planet in the process. And if you find no such alternative milks in your office, maybe you should be the one to take up the initiative, and replicate Jen’s experiment for yourself.