Updated: Jan 17
A recent survey conducted by Ipsos and the Vegan Society in the UK found that veganism loop has increased by 260% over the past 10 years, and there are now roughly 542,000 vegans living in the UK. Intake of plant-based dairy is also increasing in the UK, and it is predicted that this industry will have increased by an impressive 43% by 2021.
Sustainable Eating is a term used to describe diets which have low environmental impact, which in turn contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are also protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems. The Environmental Impact of Dairy Producing meat and dairy is said to release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other type of food production, however, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) beef cattle release more emissions than dairy cattle.
The amount of greenhouse gas emissions related to dairy varies a lot between different farms in the UK. But overall, the level of emissions from dairy farms is thought to contribute less than 2% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions every year (the total UK emission related to the food supply is 18–20%). Some countries, such as Ireland, are making good progress in reducing emissions related to dairy and it is estimated that moving from current dietary eating patterns to plant-based diets on a global scale would drastically improve the environmental impact of food production by: reducing land use by 76%; reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 49%; reducing damage to water supply – with a 50% reduction in acidification (where chemicals decrease the pH of the sea or soil).
Although vegetables have a lower carbon footprint than dairy per weight, wider issues in crop production also need to be taken into account. This includes: water use, land use, the energy needed for heat lamps, and using strong chemicals which can impact the local environment. For example, as compared with cow’s milk, producing soya milk is significantly less damaging in terms of: greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water supply. However, producing almond milk uses roughly 17 times more water than cow’s milk per litre, but cow’s milk emits nearly 10 times more greenhouse gases per litre. A Swedish study also found that greenhouse gas emissions were 16 – 41% lower when cow’s milk production was substituted for oat milk production. However, oat milk production was seen to cause more environmental acidification as compared with cow’s milk.
Overall production of most plant-based dairy alternatives is seen to be better for the environment as compared with cow’s milk. The British Dietetic Association also supports the replacement of some dairy products with suitable plant-based versions, where appropriate, in order to encourage sustainable eating.
The current healthy eating guidelines in the UK (the Eatwell Guide) emphasize including plenty of plant-based options in the diet, without avoiding meat and dairy altogether. Although the Eatwell Guide references sustainable eating, such as choosing sustainable fish and including plenty of plant-based foods in the diet, other countries put more of an emphasis on this. For example, the Swedish guidelines provide practical advice on how to choose sustainable fish, meat and oils. Similarly, the Brazilian guidelines stress the importance of sustainable food
As a Nutritionist I think it’s important to stress that dairy provides: protein, calcium, iodine, certain B vitamins phosphorus and potassium. Some types of yoghurt and fermented dairy products like kefir also provide gut-friendly bacteria (probiotics). There is no replacement for dairy which completely matches its nutritional profile, as most plant-based milks are very low in protein and aren’t always fortified with important vitamins and minerals. However, fortified soya-based dairy alternatives tend to have the most similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk products.
If you’re buying plant-based dairy alternatives, always make sure that they are fortified with calcium and vitamin B12; some companies are also starting to fortify with iodine too which is a plus. Calcium fortification is especially important as dairy is our main source of calcium in the UK. Furthermore, 22% of young women and 11% of young men in the UK already don’t consume enough calcium.
Other plant-based sources of calcium include: tofu, tempeh and pinto beans. Figs, oranges, almonds, brazil nuts, chia seeds, pistachio nuts and green leafy vegetables (like: pak choi, kale, brussel sprouts and broccoli) also contain calcium, but in much smaller amounts. For example, you would need to eat 63 brussel sprouts to get the same amount of calcium as a glass of cow’s milk! Well Christmas is coming up!
It is also important to bear in mind that plant-based milks, with the exception of soya versions, are often not suitable for young children to use as their main drink. Furthermore, soya- based products aren’t recommended for babies under 6 months old, and rice milk is not recommended for children under 5 years old. If you are raising a baby or young child on a dairy-free or vegan diet, it can be helpful to get support from a nutritionist or dietitian in order to ensure optimal nutrition and avoid any complications.
The concept of eating sustainably to protect the environment is complicated as so many factors are involved. Most plant-based alternatives to dairy tend to be more environmentally-friendly than dairy products. However, it is important to remember that dairy is a really nutritious and affordable food. Dairy production is not as harmful to the environment as compared with meat production, and attempts to farm dairy more sustainably have been quite successful in the UK to date.
If you want to investigate further please dive into the references and suggested reading list below.
Results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) rolling programme for 2014 to 2015 and 2015 to 2016 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined]Ipsos & The Vegan Society (2016) “Find out how many vegans are in Great Britain” https://www.vegansociety.com/whats-new/news/find-out-how-many-vegans-are-great-britain] Foodbev Media (2017) “Uk Meat Substitutes Sales to Grow by 25% in Four Years”: https://www.foodbev.com/news/uk-meat-substitutes-sales-grow-25-four-years/]FAO (2010) “Final document: International Scientific Symposium Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets: United against Hunger. 3-5 November 2010” http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3004e/i3004e.pdf] Carlsson-Kanyama & González (2009) “Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change” [accessed November 2018 via: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/89/5/1704S/4596965]FAO (2013) “Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock” [accessed November 2018 via: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf]BDA (2017) “Policy Statement – Sustainable Diets” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.bda.uk.com/improvinghealth/healthprofessionals/policy_statements/policy_statement_sustainable_food.pdf]DAERA (2017) “Greenhouse Gas Emissions on Northern Ireland Dairy Farms’ [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/daera/Greenhouse%20Gas%20Emissions%20on%20Northern%20Ireland%20Dairy%20Farms_2.pdf]FCRN (2012) “Report on UK dairy sector GHG emissions” [accessed September 2018 via: https://www.fcrn.org.uk/research-library/report-uk-dairy-sector-ghg-emissions]MacDiarmid et al. (2013) “Sustainable diets for the future: can we contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by eating a healthy diet?” [accessed November 2018 via: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/96/3/632/4576889]The Dairy Roadmap [accessed September 2018 via: file:///Users/maevehanan/Downloads/dairy_roadmap.pdf]Riley & Buttriss (2011) “A UK public health perspective: what is a healthy sustainable diet?”Ho et al. (2016) “Almond Milk vs. Cow Milk Life Cycle Assessment’ [accessed September 2018 via: https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/cow-vs-almond-milk-1.pdf]Roos et al. (2016) “Producing oat drink or cow’s milk on a Swedish farm — Environmental impacts considering the service of grazing, the opportunity cost of land and the demand for beef and protein” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X15300421]PHE (2016) “The Eatwell Guide” [accessed September 2018 via: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide]Livsmedelsverket “Find your way to eat greener, not too much and be active” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.livsmedelsverket.se/globalassets/publikationsdatabas/andra-sprak/kostrad-eng.pdf] SFAO “Food-based dietary guidelines – Brazil” [accessed October 2018 via: http://www.fao.org/nutrition/education/food-based-dietary-guidelines/regions/countries/brazil/en/]“The Eatwell Guide: a More Sustainable Diet” [accessed September 2018 via: https://www.carbontrust.com/media/672635/phe-sustainable-diets.pdf]Springmannet al. (2016) “Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change”The Dairy Council (2016) “Milk Factsheet” [accessed September 2018 via: https://www.milk.co.uk/hcp/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/woocommerce_uploads/2016/12/Milk_consumer_2016.pdf]The Vegan Society (2017) “Calcium” [accessed October 2018 via: https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrients/calcium]PEN (2017) “Plant-based Beverages – Are They Really Healthier For Young Children?” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.pennutrition.com/docviewer.aspx?id=12811]NHS (2016) “Types of formula milk” [accessed November 2018 via: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/types-of-infant-formula/]