Vegans should avoid soya milk if they want to save the planet, and even consider drinking cows’ milk instead, a sustainability charity has said.
The Sustainable Food Trust said that soya beans are associated with rainforest destruction, and that soya meal is also used in animal food, but that the amounts required to create soya milk meant that cow’s milk is healthier for the planet.
The charity wrote: “Vegans and others who buy milk substitutes made from soya are also harming the planet.
“They would do better to switch to milk from cows, and especially cows traditionally grazed on grass, if they want to help make a more sustainable planet.”
In the UK, livestock feed manufacturers use more than a million tonnes of soya meal every year, the SFT said.
The study authors found that the amount of milk produced per kilo of soya meal varied widely.
The authors worked out that around 85 litres of milk is produced in the UK for every kilo of soya bean meal consumed by dairy cows.
But no more than 7.5 litres of soya drink are produced from a kilo of whole soya beans – so drinking milk from cows in the UK uses 11 times less soya than consuming drinks made directly from soya.
Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said: “This is an important study. It shows that livestock farmers could reduce their dependence on imported protein, which is produced at such a high environmental cost, and rely more on home produced feed.
“But it also shows that drinking cows’ milk uses far less soya than drinks made from soya, because most of the milk comes from grass.
“This highlights the importance of grass, a crop ideally suited to our climate and the grazing animals that turn it into high quality foods we can eat.”
The claims have proven controversial. The UK vegan charity Viva says: "Soya grown for human consumption is only a small fraction of global soya produce and many companies now have clear policies in place assuring consumers that their soya is non-GM and in many cases, grown sustainably and comes from countries with stricter legislation.”
The charity adds that "the vast majority of the world’s soya – around 75 per cent – is destined for the production of protein-rich animal feed for livestock".
Furthermore, a major study by Oxford University in 2018 published in the journal Science, reported that “a low-impact litre of cow’s milk uses almost two times as much land and creates almost double the emissions as an average litre of soymilk”.
The study added: “Animal product free diets, therefore, deliver greater environmental benefits than purchasing sustainable meat or dairy.”
This article was updated on 8 September