January 14, 2021

Do We Need To Reduce Dairy Consumption In The Coffee Sector?


For some, coffee and milk are the perfect complementary duo. It has been approximately 10,000 years since humans first began consuming cow’s milk. In 2020, 91% of all coffee-based café beverages were prepared with dairy products.

Drinking cow’s milk is a deeply ingrained part of many cultures around the world, but it is recognised by many to be more and more problematic with every year that passes. Cattle are estimated to contribute to a staggering 11% of all global greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity, and each litre of cow’s milk is estimated to “cost” more than 1,000 litres of water.

As climate change is continually reducing the amount of usable land for coffee cultivation, these figures are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. To learn more about this topic, I spoke with two experts who work in the rapidly-growing plant milk sector. Read on to find out what they said.

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How Much Dairy Do We Use?

The global dairy industry is worth around US $400 billion. Around the world, there are estimated to be more than 274 million cows that produce milk for human consumption. In the UK alone, more than 1.3 billion litres of cow’s milk are produced every month. The biggest global producers of cow’s milk are the EU, India, and the US. 

For more than 100 years, since the First World War, the consumption of cow’s milk has been broadly encouraged in many cultures. The high levels of protein in dairy products were considered to be a great way to avoid malnutrition in children when rationing was commonplace.

This continued through the Second World War and the first half of the 20th century. In 1946, the US government provided free cow’s milk with every school meal, asserting the idea that consuming dairy was essential for healthy growth, especially for children.

While some 90% of adults in western countries can drink cow’s milk with no real impact on their health, in reality, more than two-thirds of adults around the world are lactose intolerant in some capacity. 

Furthermore, the idea that dairy products are a reliable source of calcium has also been contested; in Japan and China, countries where dairy consumption is comparatively low, diseases and illnesses related to calcium deficiency are actually less prevalent than they are in the EU.

Altogether, despite the cultural and economic significance of global dairy consumption, it has decreased in recent years. In 1975, it was estimated that the average American consumed some 130 litres of cow’s milk a year. Just 42 years later in 2017, this figure had fallen by almost 50%, with average consumption per capita down to 66 litres per annum. This has been reflected in a fall in sales figures, which have dropped by 15% since 2012 in the US alone.

Problems With The Dairy Industry

The recent change in consumer attitudes towards dairy consumption can be attributed to a number of reasons, but perhaps the most notable is the dairy sector’s impact on the environment.

For every litre of dairy milk produced, it is estimated that some 3.2kg of carbon emissions are produced. In comparison with rice milk (one of the more carbon emission-heavy plant milks) that’s almost three times as much CO2 (1.2kg).

A report from the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy found that the 13 largest global dairy companies produced more than 338 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2017.

Beyond carbon emissions, an average of 9 sq m of land is needed to produce a litre of cow’s milk, compared to just 0.8 sq m for oat milk. 

Jim Richards is the CEO of Milkadamia, a plant-based milk company that uses only macadamia nuts. The company started selling exclusively to cafés in 2015, but soon expanded into retail. 

Jim notes that beyond the impact of additional greenhouse gases, dairy farming also produces considerable volumes of raw waste.

“Dairy farming [also] produces significantly more raw sewage than it does milk,” he says. “Dairy farms’ open raw-sewage lagoons dot the countryside, regularly fouling lakes and streams.”

He adds that another concern is animal welfare. “The life expectancy for dairy cows shrinks from 15 to 25 years to just four or five years,” Jim tells me. “For plant-based milk, animals are not intensely exploited [in this way].”

The Growth Of Plant-Based Milks

It’s clear that the global dairy industry has a huge carbon footprint, and rising consumer concerns about animal wellbeing and ethics only add further pressure.

Toni Petersson is the CEO of Oatly. “We’re at a moment when everyone needs to find a role in changing the way we live for the good of the planet,” he says.

“One proven way we can change the way we live is by decreasing the amount of animal products we consume.” The rising interest in this approach has been reflected by Oatly’s sales, which increased by a staggering US $68 million from 2017 to 2018. 

This hasn’t just been reflected in Oatly, either. Plant milk sales have grown all across the world. Global sales have increased by 61% since 2012, and the worldwide plant-based market is now projected to be worth more than US $41 billion by 2025. 

Much of this increase is attributed to the influence of younger consumers; non-dairy alternatives are most popular among people aged 35 and under, who make up more than 25% of the market share.

It’s estimated that in the UK, 26% of women use plant milk, while 33% of those aged 16 to 24 state they prefer non-dairy alternatives. Understandably, the two main reasons they cite for the switch away from dairy are health and environmental factors.

Is The Coffee Industry Ready To Make A Change?

Despite its widespread use of cow’s milk, plant milks are rapidly becoming more popular in the coffee sector. 

“Cafés have been leaders in offering non-dairy choices,” Jim tells me. “Many people first try non-dairy in a café setting. 

“We launched Milkadamia in the café industry; we know [cafés] are incubators of trends. They have their fingers firmly on the cultural pulse. They are in direct daily contact with consumers, and respond early to these changing needs.”

This trend isn’t just exclusive to smaller specialty coffee chains and independent cafés, either. It is becoming more popular among broader consumer market segments.

In 2019, more than 10% of all drinks in the UK’s popular Pret A Manger coffee chain were ordered with plant milk. This year alone, Starbucks introduced oat milk into more than 1,300 stores worldwide.

Toni adds that the coffee shop also provides a great platform to talk about the impact of dairy consumption and improve consumer awareness.

“We partnered in the past with… coffee shops in the UK to raise awareness [about the impact of dairy] by discounting Oatly drinks by 80%. This is the same percentage of CO2 [emissions] that consumers save by switching to Oatly from cow’s milk.

“Our coffee partners are the ones who ask us the toughest questions about sustainability and ethics and business; this demonstrates just how committed they are to making a positive change.”

The Practical Side: Choosing The Right Plant Milk

Ultimately, however, dairy consumption for many consumers will come down to the flavours in their cup. This means that it’s important to choose a plant-based option that works with coffee. This should a flavour that isn’t too strong, and one that is also easy for baristas to work with. 

“We heard that most non-dairy options didn’t foam properly, were too thin, had a [strong] flavour, or [didn’t work] acidic environments,” Toni says. “Effectively, baristas were looking for something that just worked like cow’s milk.

“Coffee professionals put so much care and attention into sourcing and crafting the best coffee, so after all that work, you don’t want to combine it with something that’s not right.”

Plant-based milks contain significantly less fat and protein than cow’s milk. This means that when steamed, the foam is much less stable; additionally, many plant milks are more prone to curdling when they come into contact with coffee.

As a result, most major plant milk suppliers – especially those working with coffee shops – provide a barista range of products. These often include additional fats and acidity regulators to mimic the texture and flavour of cow’s milk. 

“We made sure our barista formula could also withstand a good acidic cup of coffee and hold its foam for any incredible latte art,” Toni adds. 

Similarly, Jim says: “By focusing on the ratio and blend of proteins and fats, Milkadamia’s Latte-Da produces an amazing foam and a deliciously creamy taste profile.”

Even though the coffee industry is taking steps to reduce its levels of dairy consumption, and the plant milk market is growing tremendously quickly, the sheer size of the dairy sector is problematic for climate change.

With concerns about climate change high on the international political agenda, changes may well become more drastic in the months and years to come. “What would it be like if plant-based dairy was the default option at every coffee shop and cow’s milk was the alternative?” Toni asks. “What if we just changed the status quo?”

Next time you visit a café, if you’re planning on ordering a cappuccino or a latte, consider asking for non-dairy milk. You might find that you enjoy it just as much, or more. If you do, you can remind yourself that you’re taking a small but important step towards minimising the impact the coffee sector has on the environment.

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Perfect Daily Grind

Photo credits: Alice Schoolcraft, Milkadamia, Oatly

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