Tallying the Eco-Score of Plant-Based vs. Dairy

December 1, 2022
Tallying the Eco-Score of Plant-Based vs. Dairy

This article was originally published in the October/November 2022 edition of The World of Food Ingredients Digital magazine.

Plant-based products don’t always yield a lower impact on the planet, accounting for an array of factors.

There’s a lot of buzz around plant-based dairy and the need for a shift away from dairy-based products as a sustainability strategy. Many stakeholders, particularly dairy producers, argue that the sustainability of plant-based dairy products is overstated. However, what does environmental sustainability mean for the future of the dairy industry?

One of the main criticisms of traditional dairy is that it’s very carbon-intensive. Generally, from a pure carbon perspective, plant-based will almost always beat dairy. But as with everything in the global food system, it’s not quite that simple. This kind of measurement doesn’t consider more holistic sustainability measures like soil health, biodiversity, and farmer livelihoods.

The most important factors with any given product’s environmental and social impact are ingredient type, geography, and growing practices. Using HowGood’s sustainability intelligence platform, Latis, a comparison will be made of four different combinations of factors for two different products—dairy milk and cashew milk—to better understand the intricacies of sourcing sustainably.

Organic Cashew Milk

It may be surprising to learn that organic cashew milk has the lowest (most negatively impactful) impact score of all four combinations and the highest cradle-to-farm-gate carbon footprint at 3.81 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg (kgCO2e/kg) of finished product.

Cradle-to-farm-gate refers to the emissions caused by the act of growing a specific ingredient before any factory, processing, transportation, or distribution emissions. This includes fertilizer inputs, pesticide and herbicide inputs, on-farm fuel needs, till-age, mechanized harvest, electricity needs for storage, and any on-farm processing, cooling, or fermentation.

Source: Latis © 2022, HowGood

The low overall score is mainly due to increased labor risk associated with agricultural production in Vietnam, where most cashews imported to the US are produced. The high carbon footprint is largely attributed to the risk of land use change for cashew production, meaning that ecosystem destruction and deforestation are highly likely to make way for cashew orchards.

Land use change is one of the most significant contributors to high cradle-to-farm-gate impact. When ecosystems are cleared or burned to make way for agriculture, a tremendous amount of stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, mainly in the form of carbon dioxide—an estimated 4.8 billion tons each year between 2015-2017.

In addition to the overall impact score and carbon footprint, the product ranks poorly according to Eco-Score ratings, a European scoring system that rates food products on a scale of A to E—the lowest environmental impact to the highest.

Products that receive unfavorable Eco-Scores are ones that contribute to these indicators: climate change (CO2), fine particle air pollution, depletion of water resources, depletion of energy resources, land use, and depletion of mineral resources.

Therefore, although organic certification positively affects biodiversity for an associated product, it does not necessarily reduce a product’s carbon and environmental footprint, or improve the working conditions for those involved in agricultural production.

Photo courtesy of Food Ingredients First

Region-Specific Dairy Milk

Dairy milk from the Northeast of the US is an example of a product that does not have organic certification, but has a higher impact score.

Source: Latis © 2022, HowGood

The overall impact score is several points higher than the organic cashew milk, and the carbon footprint is significantly lower at less than a third of the plant-based example—even though this milk is not US Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certified. This is mainly due to the lower chance of land use change associated with dairy production in the American Northeast.

The labor risk associated with most products grown in the US is lower than Vietnam, the previous example. Though it should be noted that working conditions in the US are by no means above reproach. Agricultural workers in the US often face extremely difficult and abusive conditions, particularly those who are undocumented.

As the comparison between non-organic dairy and organic cashew milk demonstrates, there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to certification. The environmental, and social conditions of production for ingredient types determine much of their impacts regardless of certifications and growing practices. Further improvements can be made in addition to organic certification.

Organic & Regenerative

The Regenerative Organic Certification includes all of the requirements of its organic counterpart with several key additions. It includes higher-scoring ingredients and products overall, including soil health and management, animal welfare, and farm worker livelihoods.

Regenerative farming is a way of production that goes beyond organic (which mainly focuses on the prohibition of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in farming operations), with the ultimate goal of increasing soil fertility and capturing carbon in the soil.

This is done through various methods such as no/low-tilling, mixed cropping systems, comp-post application, and integrated animal agriculture to aid with fertilization and soil structure improvement. Regenerative farming also improves water infiltration, protects the soil from erosion, and enhances biodiversity.

Source: Latis © 2022, HowGood

As this scorecard demonstrates, there is a significant improvement in the overall impact and carbon footprint versus the organic example—but only a small improvement in land use. Unfortunately, Re-generative Organic Certification cannot avoid the fact that cashew production often drives land use change, a significant component of cashews’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to the high carbon stocks in tropical ecosystems.

Land-to-Market Dairy

Perhaps more surprising than the low-scoring organic cash-ew milk is this high-scoring dairy milk, with an overall impact score of 70, and the lowest carbon footprint of these examples—0.78 kgCO2e/kg.

Source: Latis © 2022, HowGood

For an animal-based ingredient like dairy, applying standards such as Land to Market can reduce GHGs due to its minimal use of fossil fuels, feed inputs, and synthetic fertilizers. In fact, according to some research, Land to Market-verified beef, and dairy can have a CO2e/kg that is negative.

By regenerating the soil through rotational grazing practices, dairy producers can increase the carbon-carrying capacity of their soil. Soil is one of the largest carbon stores on the planet—five times higher than the carbon content in trees and plants. By allowing the soil to remain undisturbed by tilling or deforestation, the carbon remains trapped underground rather than being released into the atmosphere.

Formulating “Green” Products

It’s important to note that there are many different variants of plant milk on the market, and many dairy and plant-based products that are not covered here. The purpose of this piece is to illustrate the complexity of sourcing decisions, and the nuances often left out of the “plant-based vs. dairy” conversation.

At the end of the day, it’s not about organic or non-organic, plant-based or dairy-based—it’s much more complicated than that. But if you have all the data and know how to leverage it, it is possible to formulate products with a lower carbon footprint, while making a positive environmental and social impact.