Oats or milk is not the question

January 19, 2021

Two years ago I made a study on the the health and environmental effects of dairy products and plant-based alternatives, mainly oats and soy, to dairy under Swedish conditions. The report got quite a lot of attention. Now I made a shorter English version focussing only the environmental effect. It is downloadable here.

The key conclusion of the report is:

The food system is dynamic and one cannot deduct the full environmental impact of choices of consumption from the results of lifecycle assessments. The choice between milk and plant-based alternatives is less important than how the food system is designed and how they are produced. There are no reasons to position consumption of milk and oats as mutually exclusive.

The report goes through the various impacts such as land use, energy use, water use, biodiversity, green house gas emissions, pollution, soil health. For many of the impacts, the analysis is based on lifecycle assessments. They are useful for analysing a certain production to identify hot spots of environmental impact in order to direct improvements in a strategic way. They can also be useful to compare two different ways of producing the same products, especially in an industrial context. But in complex systems, such as farming, the usefulness of life cycle assessments diminishes.

In the production of soy or oat drink the by-products are used mostly to feed animals. Raising livestock is therefore, in a sense, part of the production of plant-based drink. Along a similar vein, raising calves for slaughter and the slaughter of cows once they no longer produce milk are more or less a pre-condition for the production of milk. While individuals can choose oat drink or milk and not eat meat, at a system level meat consumption, and all its impacts, is embedded in both of them.

Furthermore, it is difficult, and not even desirable, to isolate products from their context. We do not eat a small number of individual products, but full diets. Farming systems don’t, hopefully, produce isolated products. Oats and milk can be, and often are, produced on the same farm. Dairy cows or their offspring can eat oats which is not good enough for the industry, lie on oat straw bedding and eat leftovers from the oat drink production. The oats can be fertilized with cow manure and benefit from a crop rotation including leys for cattle feed. From an agriculture and food systems perspective there simply are no reasons to position oat drink and milk as mutually exclusive alternatives. Each product has its strengths and weaknesses, but how they are produced is mainly of greater significance.

Individuals can have different preferences regarding taste, ethics etc. And the same person can prefer an oat creamer in their coffee while eating oatmeal porridge with milk. Oatmeal porridge and gruel made of oats and milk were staple foods not long ago. From a nutritional perspective, most people in wealthy countries do not have to drink milk or its replacement at all, they can just as well drink water (for many poor people or pastoralists, milk is clearly a very important nutritious food, in particular for children). The environmental and social effects of coffee production is more important than whether the coffee is mixed with milk, cream, or alternative creamers. Furthermore, the chic coffee shop certainly causes much bigger greenhouse gas emissions itself than the coffee and the milk consumed by the patrons.

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Leaving the results of my report, let me also offer a bigger picture. By exaggerating the importance of the choice between oat milk and milk, or between a vegan burger and a meat burger, the transformation of the food system is framed into a narrative of consumer choice. As things stand in Europe today, both milk and the raw materials to the non-dairy alternatives are mostly (in some countries milk production is a final bastion of family farms but mostly the milk of those produceras are mixed with the milk from others in the highly centralized dairy industry) produced in industrialized farms oriented to commodity production. Those farms base their production on the massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and in most cases they are highly specialized in one line of production. Monculture dairy farming is in most cases better for the soil than monoculture oat growing, simply because most dairy farms grow perennial grass, clover or alfalfa. But none of them are sustainable in any wider sense and consumers are not making a good ethical or environmental choice by buying any of them.

The fight between milk and oat drink is also a reflection of competing commercial interests and a struggle over margins between actors in the value chain. When you buy a liter of milk, the farmer gets some 30-40 cents, while when you buy oat milk, the farmer gets 3-4 cents. No wonder that Oatly is heading for the NYSE.

Where does this leave consumers? First, don’t focus on individual products being good or bad, it is all about context. Milk, oats, soy, pork, avocado and oil palm can all be sustainably produced or not. They can be produced where you live or not. They can be produced by someone you know and trust or not. Go for local foods produced in organic, regenerative ways, preferably by a farmer or a community you know, or produced by yourself. If not possible, do the second best or the third best.

But even more important be as little a consumer as possible, preferably not at all a consumer: be a food citizen, a food creator, a food producer. Identifying yourself as “consumer” leads to short-term behaviour, looking for the best deal. But the best deal may come with a high price for the farmer, the environment, the cow or agriculture workers. The consumer narrative also cements the illusion that the consumer is in charge, and thus to blame for all the ills of the capitalist economy.

Cook, eat and enjoy, celebrate food! And if you like oat milk: buying organic oats and making your own oat milk is surprisingly easy. Grow on whatever space you can find. Raising a cow is considerably more challenging and equally rewarding. Cooperate with others producing crops and breeding animals. Share surpluses and knowledge freely.

Meanwhile, agriculture policies, trade policies, tax systems and regulations are in many ways determining how food is produced and the conditions for farming and it is essential that citizens also engage in changing those conditions into the better. Admittedly, agriculture politics is very complex and interacts with many other policy areas, and what we eat is a reflection of the whole society.


Teaser photo credit: Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, plant-based milk alternatives