Sustainable eating: Alternatives to Cow’s Milk

Shelley Cheng

This piece will be a part of my series on sustainable eating.
[CN: animal cruelty]

Our dietary choices not only affect our health, but also the health of our environment.
Energy and water usenative habitat cut down for crops and grazing, and emissions that exacerbate climate change, are just some of the profound effects agriculture has on Earth. And, there are more and more mouths to feed.” (x)

Eating sustainably, considering where and how our food is produced, could be of benefit to not only the animals we eat, our health and the environment.

The treatment of dairy cows

Since morality is a matter of opinion, I won’t go into whether killing animals in order to eat them is morally wrong. I will focus more on the way the animals are treated in order to keep up with human consumption.

We are often fed with images of cows grazing in huge clearings or the happy Aussie farmer milking a cow in the open. But this is far from reality. The practices of the dairy industry are adapted to meet the huge, year-round demand.

Cows, like many other female mammals, only lactate when they’re pregnant. To “solve” this issue, the cows are continuously impregnated (x). To summarise the process:

  1. A person jacks off a bunch of bulls by hand or with an electro-ejaculator;
  2. Their semen is collected,
  3. Then tubed or fisted into a cow confined in a rack.
  4. When the calf is born, it gets locked up to prevent it from drinking its mother’s milk.
  5. If the calf is male, its throat is slit and it is sold as veil. If it’s a female, it’s raised to be a dairy cow.
  6. When a dairy cow is too emotionally and physically exhausted from being exploited, they are dragged out and sold as beef.

Being kept pregnant their whole life leads to issues like: premature aging, exhaustion and mastitis – inflammation or infection of the utter. The average life-expectancy of a diary cow is four to five years, while a non-dairy cow is expected to live up to 25 years. While it’s not killing the animal, it is prolonged suffering and doesn’t really benefit humans.

Cow’s milk may be detrimental to our health 

How does mastitis in dairy cows affect us? It means that pus and blood in our milk is common. It is processed but, not completely – in Australia, 400,000 somatic cells are allowed in every mL of milk. Delicious.

Cow’s milk is designed for baby cows, not humans – scientific studies have always proven this:

  1. Cow’s milk depletes the calcium from our bones
  2. Cow’s milk-drinkers have highest cases of bone fracture and osteoporosis
  3. 70 per cent of the population is lactose intolerant to varying degrees

So why do we keep drinking cow’s milk?  Consuming dairy is an idea deeply inseminated into our education, nutritional guides and media in general. Behind this is the dairy industry, paying for all these advertisements.

For most of history, cow’s milk was only a small part of a diet for a small number of people. Winter made it difficult to grow fruits and vegetables, so people drank cow’s milk to survive. During World War I, the U.S. government sent soldiers huge amounts of canned and powdered milk in effort to fight malnutrition. In response, farmers changed their practices to focus on dairy production. When the war ended and demand dried up, farmers were inevitably left with heaps of milk. (x)

The problem was that farmers invested too much time to shift away from large-scale, year-round round milk production. Instead of reducing production, they encouraged people to drink more. Milk producers got a boost from legislation that required meals to have a glass of milk. The Federal Government started buying up the surplus and encouraging multimillion-dollar companies like Dominos and Starbucks to engage in “milk partnerships”. It is no surprise then, that one slice of Dominos pizza has two thirds of the “daily recommended intake of dairy”. (x)

The environmental impact 

The global water footprint of animal agriculture is 2,422 billion cubic meters of water (one forth of the total global water footprint, most of which is related to dairy cattle. Water use adds up fast in the process of making milk: water is required to hydrate and feed cows, clean the parlour floors, walls and milking equipment.

Hydrating cows

As milk is nearly 87 per cent water, a cow that is continuously producing milk needs to well-hydrated. A medium size dairy factory farm facility houses between 200 and 700 cows (the EPA considers 700 dairy cattle the lower limit for a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). A cow can drink 87 litres a day. In a facility with 700 cows, 61,000 litres of water would be used every day solely for the cow’s drinking water. Remember that this is only for one factory farm facility.

Water for feed

A study found that 98 per cent of milk’s footprint can be traced back to a cow’s food. (x) Cows generally eat a lot, but constantly producing milk is a huge drain on a dairy cow’s metabolism. As a result, they need to replenish themselves with food, additional food that we need to grow. A dairy cow can produce up to 26 litres of milk per day. This means that 18,000 litres of water is used per cow per day to meet their food needs.

A report by MotherJones shows the number of gallons of water used to grow feed for cows to produce our favorite dairy produce, here are some of the figures:

  • 1 scoop of ice cream requires 159 litres
  • 1 cup of yogurt requires 133 litres
  • 1 cup of greek yogurt requires 341 litres
  • 2 slices of cheese requires 189 litres
  • 1 stick of butter requires 413 litres

Water for Cleaning Dairy Facilities

A dairy facility that has an automatic “flushing” system for manure can use up to 570 litres of water per cow, per day.

When you add up the water used for food, water, and cleaning the facility the average dairy cow uses just under 19,000 litres of water per day. Considering in 2015, Australia had 1.74 million dairy cows (x), imagine how much clean water is used. This isn’t even taking into the account the water needed to clean the equipment used.

Carbon emissions

According to this report, it is estimated that the global dairy sector makes up four per cent of the total global anthropogenic green house gas (GHG) emissions. This figure includes emissions allocated to milk production, processing and transportation, and the emissions from feeding and slaughtering the dairy cows.

Around 52 per cent of the GHGs produced by dairy is methane, the most troubling GHG as it has the ability to trap 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.  It is also estimated that a dairy cow produces up to 500 liters of methane a day.  Additionally, it was estimated that nitrous oxide made up another 27 per cent of a dairy cow’s GHG emission. Nitrous oxide has a global warming potential nearly 300 times greater than carbon dioxide. Yikes.

Sustainable, accessible alternatives

There are many alternatives that are healthy, cheap and easy to make. (x) Some popular ones, however, may not be the best choice.

Almond milk

Almond milk has become quite popular and considered the “healthy” alternative. However, it takes 5 litres of water to grow one almond. More than 80 per cent of the world’s almond crop is grown in California, which has been experiencing its worst drought on record. The demand for almonds is also harming honeybees. Almond trees need to be pollinated but bringing in 1.6 million hives to California every year, into almond farms dripping with insecticides kills off whole colonies killed off.

Soy milk

Soy milk is one of the highest sources of plant protein with five to ten grams of protein per 250ml serve. It is cheap and most stores sell it, but health-wise, it may concern some. But according to Worldwide Fund for Nature, almost 4 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year for soy foods and milk in South America alone. This is equivalent to just under one third of the size of England.

Coconut milk

“Coconut milk is particularly rich and does contain a significant amount of fat, however the fat in coconuts is a medium chain fatty acid, which converts quickly to energy when the liver processes it, instead of storing as fat as other saturated fats might do,” says nutritionist, Jacqueline Alwill.

Coconut milk is one of the most sustainable milks as production mostly takes place in the Pacific, and a number of products are extracted from the plant. These including milk, oil, the flesh, fibres and cocopeat. Coconut farming is fairly low impact, requiring little fertiliser and pesticides, and may help sequester carbon.

Rice milk

Rice milk is easy to digest, but lacks protein and calcium.Unfortunately, rice farming is responsible for up to 1.5 per cent of the world’s GHG emissions (about half that of the dairy industry). Rice farming also produces a gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Oat milk

Oat milk is the healthiest alternative, with properties that: enhance the immune system, prevent cardiovascular diseases, maintain healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and many more.

I couldn’t find information about the footprint of oat milk but the Australian government has figures for wheat (being a similar crop to oats) production. This figure is 200kg of carbon dioxide per tonne, making it more sustainable than almond, soy and rice milk; possibly coconut milk too.

Most of these alternatives are inexpensive and easy to make at home as well. There are many recipes online. This way you can also avoid additives, sugars, or other things that may worry you. It also prevents the pollution caused by cartons and other disposable bottles.


Cows milk is unsustainable. We don’t need dairy, it doesn’t benefit us in any way. The problem is that the dairy industry is a huge economic force. Its propaganda is embedded in so many aspects of our lives, making it hard to unlearn the belief that we need milk. We need to be more sustainable as the population will keep growing. Better choices are often in arms-reach; small changes can pave the way to a more sustainable future.



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