When Statista emailed us to ask “Which (Plant) Milk Is the Most Sustainable?” our response was “Who cares?” on several grounds. Including that meme about an angel trying to explain to God that humans are making milk from nuts. But the big non-surprise was that the piece we were invited to ingest started “It comes as no surprise that among milk options, cow’s milk is the least sustainable in terms of the carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption associated with its production.” No surprise? Cow’s milk has proven remarkably sustainable, in the sense that production has been sustained since the invention of farming for one reason above all others: cows are the best at making it, all things considered. You got the best nutritional package from the least amount of feed, labour and so on. But in keeping with G.K. Chesterton’s jibe that “When the Puritans say they are democrats, they mean that they really have a universal desire to prevent ordinary people from doing ordinary things”, what really comes as no surprise is finding alarmist progressives now turning on milk, having attacked every other good thing in our lives.
There’s also a touch of Machbarkeit about it, a German word as you presumably guessed that was translated by the great libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit as meaning essentially “that anything produced by evolution could have been done better by the use of human ingenuity.” It is somewhat odd to find environmentalists with so little respect for the environment that they want their milk from a tree and their chicken from a factory. But Statista, undaunted, tells us:
“Every liter of cow’s milk produced uses up 628 liters of water and generates 3.2 kgs of CO₂. Even the most water hungry among the plant milks, almond milk, reaches only 60 percent of that water use and the biggest polluter among them, rice milk, causes not even 40 percent of the emissions generated by cow’s milk. Soy and oat milk are even more sustainable options when it comes to water use, only requiring a fraction of the water used in the production of cow’s milk.”
We could object that a litre of lake milk also takes far less CO2 and water. The issue is that even if you call water “milk” it doesn’t really get the job done when it comes to flavour, nutrition or authenticity. Or we could retort that if you’re fond of rice, there’s this version of it involving little tiny cylinders rather than a liquid which has for millennia been the basis of some splendid and popular cuisine. Or that cows are part of this fabled circle of life in which, among other things, they deposit rich dung fertilizer that helps plants grow and sequester carbon, if what really inspires you about a field of living things is its capacity to trap element 14, and what really excites you about a meal is its carbon footprint. Speaking of Puritans.
Instead let’s do a bit of economics. Speaking of fun. Specifically, the world is estimated to contain something like 270 million dairy cows, nearly 60 million in India alone. (That’s according to the World Wildlife Fund which, predictably, complains that “Dairy cows and their manure produce greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change” rather than that they produce milk and fertilizer too.) Suppose you wanted to replace them all with almond trees, rice paddies or (yuck) fields of oats or soybeans, all for the joy of chugging liquid tofu. Yum yum. What’s the footprint?
Are we, as with all those miserable solar panels and windmills, going to find ourselves trashing the environment to save it? All because we thought milk was killing the planet whose natural resilience we can’t praise enough except when overlooking it totally.
This stuff is no joke. The policy, we mean, not the product. And if you really prefer oat milk, for environmental, religious or hypochondriac reasons, we’re happy to have you buy it in the free market, without subsidies or regulations to favour it over the weird bovine version. But governments in many countries are setting out to kill off cows for Mother Earth, and brushing off the damage to the economy by imagining there is none or not caring much about the rubes who will be affected.
In the normally placid Netherlands, of all places, this approach including cracking down on fertilizer as though it too were pollution not a miracle that feeds humanity produced a backlash so rowdy you’d think they were Canadian truckers and other deplorables. And now the Irish government wants to “cull up to 200,000 cows”.
As Brendan O’Neill noted in Spiked, after some unkind but pertinent remarks about pagan sacrifices of animals to appease the gods and fix the weather or some other perennial issue:
“The dairy industry is worth €13 billion a year to the Irish economy. It provides 54,000 jobs. It brought in a staggering €6.8 billion in exports in 2022 alone.”
To which we would add that in a world so overwhelmingly urban that, to quote Chesterton, the typical person increasingly “likes milk out of a clean shop and not a dirty cow”, and he said it 97 years ago, destroying our economic and daily connection with nature has spiritual consequences as well as, ironically, undermining our real attachment to the real environment where cows give milk and also poop.
We are governed by people who think plant food is “pollution” and that agriculture is bad for our heath. And that milk comes from nuts. What really does is ideas like this one.