November 4, 2022

What did you pour over the breakfast cereal this morning? Oatly? Almond milk? Coconut milk? Surely not old-fashioned cow’s milk? As the splash of recent protests by Animal Rebellion (an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion) have warned: the bovine white stuff is the devil’s secretion. Targeting high-end grocers — such as Waitrose, Harrods and M&S Foods — in their “Milk Pour” campaign, these climate-change activists have tipped litres of dairy all over the hallowed floors of middle-class temples, while holding placards demanding a “plant-based future”.

But isn’t “Milk Pour” just a little hard to swallow? Doesn’t it actually stink of First Worldism? A cynic might even suggest that Skylar Sharples and her friends are the dupes of the billion-dollar alt-milk industry. Despite its we-save-the-world advertising, alt-milk is implicated in enough environmental destruction to turn you green, but only with sickness at the hypocrisy.

We all know the problems with dairy. It’s Daisy the cow’s methane burps, and the fact that livestock takes up so much of the globe’s surface. Except that the prime reason for the planetary extent of livestock is that vast tracts of the Earth consist of grass and scrub — food humans cannot eat, but which Daisy and her ilk can turn into nutritious meat and dairy, stuff that humans can chow. Far from being upscale food, as “Milk Pour” would have you believe, dairy — that is cow, sheep, goat, buffalo, donkey, horse milk — is the necessary subsistence food of millions of pastoralist peoples across the world, from Eastern Africa to Mongolia. I cannot wait for Skylar and her activist friends to spread the word to Maasai herders, to chuck away their milk while declaiming a “plant-based future”.

“Milk Pour” might also like to consider, before their next student farce on the shop floor, the UN Environment Programme’s conclusion that “pastoralism is increasingly recognised as one of the most sustainable production systems on the planet and plays a major role in safeguarding ecosystems and biodiversity in natural grasslands and rangelands”. Extolling “plant-based” as a worldwide cure is senseless. It is nothing but Western cultural imperialism, missionary veganism.

“Milk Pour” leaves a very sour political taste in the mouth at home, too. Animal Rebellion says it targets high-end grocers because it doesn’t want to bother people struggling with the cost of living. It seems not to have occurred to them that those people would probably appreciate some of the milk bottles the kids are upending. Milk prices have increased by 50% in the last year. And consider the most basic consequences of the protest. Who clears up the mess? Add contempt for shopworkers to the list of privileges Animal Rebellion need to check. And I say that as a proud former member of the shopworkers’ union, USDAW.

While the media obligingly laps up the Milk Pour stunts, the heads of the alt-milk firms must feel like fat cats who have got all the synthetic cream. The protests are a convenient diversion from the crass environmental profile of their own products, now drunk by one in three Britons, and worth £400 million a year. Take almond milk. Or maybe not, if you value biodiversity — hell, even if you even fancy a drink of water. Industrialised almond agriculture requires five litres of the blue stuff to produce a single nut. A litre of almond milk drink requires 158 litres of water, or 20 times as much as dairy.

Such has been the millennial demand — almond milk is the most popular alt-milk — that California, which produces 80% of the world’s almonds in its arid Central Valley, saw land planted with almond trees grow from 1,958 square kilometres to 6,475 square kilometres over the last 20 years. The result? Drought, desertification, and almond-growers having to grub up their trees due to lack of water.

It gets worse. Almond growers invariably douse their crop in quantities of glyphosate — known to be lethal to bees. According to Nate Donley, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, sending bees to pollinate the California almond industry is “like sending the bees to war. Many don’t come back.” In California, bees are dying in record numbers due to habitat loss and exposure to the pesticides of the industrialised almond industry. Animal Rebellion? When vegans drink almond milk, they are complicit in Animal Extinction.

What about uber-trendy coconut milk? Well, coconut trees only grow in tropical climates. Western demand is causing the exploitation of workers in poorer nations: just ask a small farmer in the Philippines or Indonesia on $2 a day for back-breaking work. And, er, what about the food miles?

Or the destruction of rainforests? It’s not just coconut milk that’s guilty on this front. Large swathes of the Amazon have been burned to make way for soy farms, and the soy goes into alt-milk as well as the cattle feed. But don’t be fooled into thinking the solution is to start growing them closer to home, in the northern hemisphere. Of the soybeans grown in the US, 94% are genetically engineered. According to a study published in Food Chemistry, when sprayed with the ever-popular pesticide RoundUp, genetically engineered soybeans accumulate high levels of glyphosate — which is not just toxic to bees but, says the British Medical Journal, likely carcinogenic.

Still fancy, soya? A study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition suggests that cow milk is far more sustainable for the planet than “milk alternatives”, especially soya-based ones, and especially if the cows are in UK systems based on grass. According to the lead author, Professor Mike Wilkinson: if you’re a British consumer, “drinking milk from cows in the UK uses 11 times less soya than consuming drinks made directly from soya”.

But maybe oat milk, most famously purveyed by Swedish company Oatly, is the great white hope of vegan faux dairy? Oats are grown in cooler climes such as the northern US, Canada and Scotland — and are therefore not associated with deforestation in developing countries. Alas, the negative of this would-be guilt-free option is that most oats come from highly industrialised operations in which they are sprayed with none other than Roundup. A study by the Environmental Working Group, an American public health organisation, found glyphosate in 43 of 45 foods it tested containing conventionally grown oats — while the Pesticide Action Network reported in 2019 that 94% of oats tested contained residues of more than one pesticide. Oatly insist that their alt-milk products are glyphosate free.

You would hope so at the price. Oatly Whole Drink costs £2.00 per litre. As they sloshed dairy milk about the floor of Waitrose, complaining about “the cost of living crisis”, Animal Rebellion might have considered real milk rather than quaffing alt-milk? I mean, Waitrose’s top-end Duchy organic dairy milk is 99p a litre — a 50% saving right there. And surely, any halfway-credible protestors against conspicuous consumption would have targeted the cartons of Rude Health Chilled Organic Almond Drink at £2.40 litre? Oh truly, for those of us who believe that sustainable livestock farming is a boon for nature, human health and cutting CO2, vegan alt-milk is the comedy gift that just keeps giving. That Rude Health drink contains 1% almonds and is essentially rice and water. Frankly, it has close to zero nutritional value, and is essentially sugary flavoured water. For £2.40 litre.

And it ain’t doing much for the environment. Early Oatly adverts also suggested that by drinking oat milk instead of dairy you personally can save a whopping 73% of your total greenhouse emissions. No, you cannot. The claim is based on Oatly’s estimate that their milk generates 0.44kg of CO2 per litre compared to dairy milk’s 1.58kg. This figure is based on methane metrics that have been shown to be biased against animal foods, ignore the fact that dairy cows also end up in the human food chain as meat (reducing other CO2 food demands), and do not account for livestock pasture’s carbon sequestration.

Then you have the overwhelming problem in standard calculations of how much greenhouse gas food emits: the sums are based on gas per food kilos or food calories. Calculations based on food quality, rather than quantity, make for very different answers. As Jayne Buxton notes in her comprehensive survey of vegan food, The Great Plant-Based Con (2022), when the metric used is CO2 per micronutrient content, the footprint of dairy milk is less than a third of that of oat milk.

Alternative milk is not a milk equivalent. Oatly claims in its adverts that its product is “like milk, but made for humans”. Made in a machine, that is. It is weak nutritional stuff. Typically, dairy milk naturally provides protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, vitamin B 12, riboflavin, potassium, the list goes on; a glass of original oat milk typically has calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin and iron — all, apart from the last, added artificially. Oh, and in the case of Oatly, the “milk” comes with added rape seed oil, phosphates (linked to kidney disease) and sugar. After being called out by Campbell Soup, of all people, Oatly deftly decided to stop marketing its oat milks as containing “no added sugars”, because its convoluted ultra-production process — in that inhuman machine — breaks down oat starch into simple sugars, primarily  maltose. So you get 7g of sugar with a single serving of Oatly Original. Hence US blogger Nat Eliason’s famous assertion that Oatly is “The New Coke”.

People are getting rich off the faux white stuff. Although Oatly promotes itself as a folksy, right-on, climate-change-busting start-up, it is a $2 billion business, the world’s largest oat milk company. Top investors include that well-known friend of the people Goldman Sachs, and the equity group Blackstone. According to Bloomberg, the CEO of Blackstone, Stephen Schwarzman, donated $3.7 million to Super Pac America First Nation, which supported the reelection of Donald Trump. This is the Trump whose administration took more than 130 separate steps to stop fighting climate change.

Elsewhere, one of Oatly’s most recent commercial initiatives has been to partner with the German petrol station network Aral, to launch the Oatly Barista Edition in approximately 1,250 of Aral’s sites. In other words Oatly, whose Number 1 “Pillar of Action” is “to drive a shift toward more sustainable, low-emission practices”, has done a deal with sellers of… petrol.

That loud sound from the meadow just down the lane? Daisy the cow, natural maker of milk for humans for 6000 years, laughing her hooves off at the stupidity and gullability of humans. I’ve just told her a joke. It’s the one about alt-milk.