Hemp gets a pretty universally good sustainability write-up. It is naturally pest and weed resistant, and it uses little water and nutrients. It has struggled legally due to its brother the cannabis plant, and the US only legalised growing it in 2018.
Almond milk has been subject to a deluge of negative media articles over the past few years, a lot of them focusing on water use. Over 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, which has been in a severe drought for much of the last decade.
However, while almond trees are certainly thirsty, it’s worth keeping this in proportion. Not only does it also take plenty of water to produce dairy milk (some analyses put it at similar, some more, and some less than almond milk), but the comparison is pertinent to California, which produces more dairy milk than almonds (in dollar terms) and uses less of its water to grow almonds than it uses to grow alfalfa for livestock feed.
Another issue that afflicts almonds is that Californian almond farmers often use a lot of pesticides, including ones that have clouds hanging over their effects on bees and human health.
Luckily, all of the almond milk companies sell organic almond milk apart from Blue Diamond, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. We discuss organic food in general here.
The use of bees to pollinate California’s almond monocrops is also thought by some to be putting bees under a lot of stress. Many companies specify that they get their almonds from Europe, not California, including Alpro, Provamel, The Bridge, EcoMil and Isola Bio.
Californian almond growing is undeniably problematic in various ways. However, it is hard not to find it slightly weird that so many of the articles on this have headlines aimed specifically at the milk alone: “The deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession”; “Almond milk: quite good for you – very bad for the planet”; “Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters”. Almonds are also used in lots of other foods (it wasn’t possible to find figures for the proportions).
Palm oil and plant milks
The plant based milks themselves do not contain palm oil. However, the companies that make them sometimes use palm oil in other things.
Of the companies that get a best palm oil rating, the following are palm oil free:
Lucy Bee, Good Hemp (Braham & Murray), Rebel Kitchen (Craze Foods), The Bridge, EcoMil (Nutriops), Sproud (WMake), Rude Health, Blue Diamond, Vita Coco, Sojade and Sojasun.
Those who get a best rating but are not palm oil free are:
- Plamil (all palm oil is “sourced from a non-Asian organic and sustainable RSPO supply chain that has been independently audited”).
- Isola Bio/Wessanen (all palm oil is RSPO certified, and most comes from Latin America where it is not associated with deforestation).
- M&S (all palm oil is certified, most by the more stringent types of certification, and the company is involved in positive initiatives).
- Alpro/Soya Soleil/Provamel/Danone (nearly all of the company’s palm oil is certified, it is involved in positive initiatives and provides details of all of its suppliers)
The most sustainable vegan milk?
It isn’t very easy to recommend an alternative milk as the best in sustainability terms.
The best thing is to get the most ethical version of each one and remember that they are all substantially better for the environment than dairy milk.
Their climate and land impacts are much smaller (see our feature on the climate impacts of plant vs dairy for details), their water use is less, their impact on biodiversity is less.