Almonds Move into the Dairy Aisle

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Photo Credit: Ben & Jerry’s

On February 3, 2016, Ben & Jerry’s released its new, non-dairy ice cream options to an eager public. Customer demand for the ice cream giant to create a vegan option has ramped up in recent years, with countless pleas on Twitter and Facebook. There was even an online petition that garnered over 28,000 signatures, insisting that offering non-dairy products is the natural progression in Ben and Jerry’s long history of ethical practices.

According to Ben & Jerry’s chief food scientist Kirsten Schimoler, the effort to perfect the flavors took over three years, and they were happy to receive such a positive response.

The new flavors Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Chunky Monkey, Coffee Caramel Fudge, and P.B. & Cookies are made with almond milk that the company claims achieves the same signature creaminess and richness of its regular ice cream. While its competitors still only offer sorbet or lactose free options, Ben & Jerry’s almond milk-based ice cream is poised to capture an untapped market.

The timing of the launch couldn’t be anymore perfect. According to the U.S. Dairy Association, milk consumption in the U.S. has been declining since the 1970s. In an attempt to stay relevant with the shifting American palate, the dairy industry even changed its iconic Got Milk tagline to a new Milk Life Campaign that associates milk with a healthy, active lifestyle.

People are ditching traditional dairy products for a variety of reasons: the unethical treatment of cows, skepticism over the nutritional benefits of milk, and most notably, its strain on the environment.

Over the past 25 years, global dairy operations have rapidly expanded with larger herds and fewer workers per cow. These industrialized farms release significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, not only through the fossil fuel combustion of operating farm equipment, but also through the methane emitted from cows.

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Photo Credit: thebullvine.com

Running large-scale dairy farms also puts pressure on natural resources, especially water. Large volumes of water are required at every stage of production, from growing the crops and feeding the cows to managing their manure and processing the finished product. Often times, the water is not properly managed after use and is released back to its source as toxic runoff.

As the dairy industry’s reputation is on the decline, plant-based milk alternatives are becoming increasingly mainstream. Almond milk is leading the way in sales, even surpassing soymilk, a long-time favorite of the American public.

The problem is, almond milk isn’t much better for the environment. While it doesn’t emit nearly as many fossil fuels as a dairy farm, the production of almond milk is just as water intensive. Over 80% of the world’s supply of almonds is grown in drought-stricken California and with 1.1 gallons of water required to grow a single almond, farmers are quickly running out of water sources to support production. They have even begun to deplete underground aquifers, which are proving to be difficult to refill.

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Almond Orchard / Photo Credit: almondinsights.com

Almond orchards also often require the use of pesticides, resulting in the same toxic water runoff as dairy farms. Additionally, because almond trees heavily rely on honeybees for pollination, these pesticides also have the potential to kill off the already declining bee population.

With such a negative ecological impact, almond milk production is not only unsustainable in the long term, but is also unrealistic on a global scale. The demand for dairy products will continue to increase as the world population continues to grow, and California almonds simply will not be able to keep up.

Perhaps the most tangible solution is to revamp the current infrastructure of the dairy industry. To achieve a new sustainable system, the dairy industry has the daunting task of revolutionizing its processes to minimize its environmental impact while meeting the growing global demand in a financially viable way.

Farms can start by improving their operations to eliminate wasteful losses. For example, old farm machinery is incredibly energy intensive, so even regular maintenance and careful use can greatly improve efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in renewable energy sources, like wind or solar power, can both lower emissions and cut down energy expenses, saving farms money in the long run.

In order to decrease water usage, scaling down herd sizes will require less water and is easier to maintain animal health and well-being. Furthermore, research has shown that the proper treatment of dairy cows decreases their stress and maximizes their milk yield and lifespan.

There is still much progress that needs to be made on the environmental front, but Ben & Jerry’s attempt to provide alternative choices is a catalyst to explore possibilities to achieve the future sustainability of milk, whether from a cow or a plant.

Sabrina Munatones

Sabrina Munatones is a fourth year Society and Environment Major and Japanese Minor. Her interests lie in food systems, sustainable living, and her dog.

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