Plant Milk Armageddon?

Is this the end of the world as we know it?

Covid is bad enough but is now a new threat on the horizon? Plant milks destroying the environment. This frothy white menace apparently means we need to cut down trees to plant soya bean to produce soya milk. Thinking they are saving the environment they are actually doing the opposite.

I often hear the argument that vegans eat a lot of soya beans therefore they are contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. They say that soya milk in particular is a major cause of deforestation. Also that guzzling almond milk is killing bees in California. So does it follow that being vegan or choosing plant milks is not so good for the environment after all ?

In the case of soya this is only a 1% truth because of the 80 : 20 rule. A bit like Murphy’s law – if something can go wrong it will do.

Most things fit into the 80:20 rule. Like 20% of people have 80% of the world’s wealth. 80% of talking is done by 20% of the people. My wife eats 80% of our chocolate.

The truth is that there is one things that accounts for the majority of soya consumption and that is as animal feed. Also the fact that forests are cleared to create pasture for cattle. In fact there is a link between the two, land is cleared for cattle then used to grow soya beans. Soya helps improve the soil, which then is used back as pasture again.

Most of the remaining clearance is to make soya oil which goes into all sorts of food products that are eaten by everyone and not just vegans. Only about 6% of soya is used directly for human consumption. Most soya goes into all sorts of processed foods… which again are eaten by everyone.

That’s why the point about vegans’ soya consumption destroying the rainforests is only 1% true. Only a small percentage is going to make soya milk, so increasing it will only make a small difference.

When you analyse soya milk you will find that it contains soya as you would expect. But this doesn’t mean that most soya on a global scale is going into soya milk. Like porridge has oats in it or muesli contains some raisins.

If cows are grass-fed, naturally it means they eat less soya. But a lot of cows aren’t grass-fed. To put on a kilo of weight they need to eat (on average) a lot of soya. The world’s 24 billion chickens eat 2kg of soya for every 1 kg increase in weight.

Pigs eat a lot more soya than even the most ardent vegan and there are a lot more of them. There are 10 times more pigs than vegans and they eat a lot more soya than even the thirstiest soya milk drinker can consume.

What about the bees in California?

It is true that a lot of the bees taken to fertilise the almond groves are starving and dying. But this is not an inevitable result of producing almond milk. Modern orchards are like deserts apart from the almond trees. Nothing else is growing there – only the crop trees. Almond trees don’t produce much pollen and it has always been the case that bees don’t produce honey when they are on the almond job. However they don’t need to starve if there are a few other plants around to top up on.  It’s like dessert for them and just fills them up a bit. Bees only starve on the monoculture farms where there are no other flowers around. So using organic almonds is a good start as there will be other plants for the bees to forage from.

So you don’t need to stop drinking soya milk and organic almond milk is better for hungry bees. But if you do want to save the forest the best thing you can do is go more plant-based.

Livestock don’t just eat soya, they also eat corn, wheat and other crops that we could eat ourselves. So much so, that it has been calculated that 80% of the world’s agricultural land is committed to producing animal products, yet only provides 18% of the calories we eat. The remaining 20% of land provides 80% of our food. Another example of the 80/20 principle.

It has been calculated that if most of us went mainly plant-based (even if not completely vegan) we would only need one quarter of the agricultural land we have at present.

This would not only save the rain forest but help all forests. It would even allow the planting of lots of new trees and other opportunities to re-wild and conserve. It would also save the oceans, as a lot of the non-economic catch from the oceans goes into animal feed.

So in summary, eating plant-based and vegan food is good for the planet afterall. Hurray!

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