The key difference between the two schemes is that ProTerra ensures that no GM is used, and when you buy ProTerra certified soya, it is guaranteed to be the same soya that received the certification. In contrast, the RTRS does not exclude GM soya and allows some certification credits to be bought and sold separately from the soya that received the certification.
Avoiding soya sourced from South America, and seeking out certified organic soya are the best options for ethically minded consumers. Of the Best Buys, Plamil and The Bridge both meet these standards. The organic soya milks offered by Sunrise and Sojade are also made from organic beans sourced outside of South America.
Coconuts are commonly grown without the use of pesticides, and can be sourced from existing coconut groves. However, the rise in popularity of coconuts does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with improving wages and workers’ rights. Increasing demand may lead to plantation expansion and the creation of new coconut groves – potentially at the detriment to pristine habitat.
Nora Pittenger from Fair Trade USA names the following as the main ethical issues with coconut production currently:
- Extreme Poverty: coconut farmers are the poorest of the poor in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, threatening the sustainability of coconut farming as a livelihood.
- Unfavourable prices: given that small plots of land are farmed, coconut farmers average about one dollar a day throughout the year.
- Low yields and productivity: particularly as coconut trees age, their inefficiency makes the cost of maintaining and harvesting coconuts high.
- Mono-crop farming: coconut is mainly grown as a mono-crop, fostering an environment of low crop diversity that can be detrimental to the environment and risky for farmers.
Because of low wages in this sector, and considering there are currently no fairly traded coconut milks available, we would recommend avoiding coconut milks until such an option is available.
A lack of fair trade coconut milks may be due to the market growing quickly, or the historical roots and focus of the fair trade movement on cocoa, coffee and tea. Either way, there is a clear need for pressure to be put on companies to ensure coconut producers are being paid a fair wage.
For more information on this issue see: The Power of Coconut, a feature by Fairtrade USA.
To make 4.5 litres of almond milk requires approximately 4,182 litres of water – more than other plant milks. When this is placed in context of a rising demand for almond milk, and with more than 80% of the world’s almonds coming from drought-stricken California, almond’s ethical credentials become questionable. Over-pumping of aquifers to irrigate almond plantations is reported to have caused land subsidence in California, potentially threatening infrastructure such as roads, bridges etc.
In addition, overworking honey bees in California’s almond groves was highlighted in Markus Imhoof’s film ‘More Than Honey’. Approximately 1.6 million beehives are said to be brought into California each year to support pollination, and as the area is “dripping with insecticides” a lot of bees have suffered. Tom Philpott reports that
during the 2014 California almond bloom, between 15% and 25% of beehives suffered “severe” damage, ranging from complete hive collapse to dead and deformed brood.
For the reasons listed above, only organic almond milk should be sought and drunk in moderation.
The Bridge (a Best Buy), Rude Health and EcoMil offer organic almond milk. Dream also has an organic almond/ hazelnut milk.
It takes about 554.6 litres of water to grow the rice needed to make 4.5 litres of rice milk. In addition, rice paddies globally are responsible for more than 1.2% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and at least 10% of agricultural emissions. Ethical Consumer’s guide to rice advised reducing our intake of rice and replacing it with more local and lower-carbon staples.
Because of the above issues, we advise avoiding rice milk.
Which milk is best of them all?
As no independent academic studies have been conducted that directly compare the environmental and social impacts of all the different plant milks, including oat and hemp milk, it is hard to provide a clear answer to this question. Until such a study arises, responding to the issues raised by campaign groups seems the best way forward. Going with the recommendations above and looking for other organic milks is one way to navigate the ethical issues.
For example, The Bridge (Best Buy) offers a range of organic milks, including oat, quinoa, buckwheat, spelt and kamut.
Large companies such as the supermarkets, Holland & Barrett and Group Danone are found at the bottom of the Plant Milk score table. All offer a range of uncertified animal products alongside their vegan milk ranges, resulting in them losing full marks under the Animal Rights and Factory Farming categories.
The smaller vegan and vegetarian companies float to the top of the Plant Milk ratings, with Plamil Foods and The Bridge coming out top. Buying vegan milk from these vegan companies is advised if Animal Rights are driving your purchasing choices.
Who makes what