In 2021, plant based milks are all the rage. The options of which plant is used just keep growing. Since 2013, almond milk has remained the most popular type of plant milk in the world, accounting for 63% of the total plant based milk market. In terms of production, oat milk comes in second place. Followed by soy. A new contender has arrived on the field: flax seed milk. We will be breaking down the facts on how flax milk measures up as a dairy alternative that benefits both you and the environment.
Table of Contents
As the global climate crisis grows, an increasing number of us are looking for ways to minimize our impact on the environment. Shedding light on this sometimes murky topic is a 2018 study from the University of Oxford into the relative carbon footprint association with different types of diet. Project lead Joseph Poore concluded that the best way to reduce individual carbon footprints is to remove meat and dairy from the diet. Just doing this alone can reduce your food-derived carbon footprint by up to 73%.
Backing this up is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who draw attention to the huge environmental cost of rearing dairy cows. Cows require a significant food, water, and land space. Just producing enough food for dairy cows uses huge areas of farmland and vast quantities of water. Plus, a heavy use of pesticides and herbicides. In addition to this, cows release methane and nitrous oxide when they digest their food. These potent and toxic greenhouse gasses have long been shown to contribute to climate change. It’s no surprise then that animal agriculture uses 83% of global farmland, and providing meat and dairy to the market accounts for 60% of the agriculture greenhouse gas emissions.
Plant Vs. Cow Milk
You’ve probably heard a lot about different types of plant milk. Or seen them in the supermarkets. Some are better or worse than others for the environment. Fortunately, this choice is really not that complicated. This year, researchers at the Curtin University in Australia collected data on different plant milks and cow milk. They found that no matter what plant milk you are using, it still has a lesser impact on the environment when compared to dairy.
Environmental impact isn’t one single thing. Instead, it is a combined impact of several different measures including:
- How much land is in use?
- What is the local wildlife affect and how?
- What chemicals are finding use?
- How much water do these plants require?
- How high are the carbon emissions?
The list can go on, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll stick to these 5 points to understand the environmental impact of the new kid on the block: flaxseed.
Flax: food, clothes and more
Flax has been grown, eaten, and worn by humans since around 3000 BC. The seeds can be used to create linseed oils, food and animal feed, and the plant fibers can be spun into cloth.
Flax milk is made by simply blending the seeds with water and boasts an impressive nutrition profile. It’s naturally gluten, dairy, nut, and soy free so is great for people with allergies. The vegans among us will know that omega-3 fatty acids can be tricky to find in plants- but flax seeds contain an amazing 2,350mg per tablespoon, making them one of the best plant sources of this crucial nutrient. They also contain significant amounts of antioxidizing lignans and gut-healthy fiber. Plus, if you buy fortified flax milk then it contains roughly the same recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D as traditional cow milk.
Need more reasons to add flax milk into your diet? Well, not only is it great for you, it’s also great for the planet.
Environmental Impact of Flax Seed Milk
To get into the environmental impact of flax milk, we need to start right at the beginning. Below is a study of the farming practices around flax.
Flax doesn’t need a huge amount of space to grow. Planting flax on its own can produce a yield anywhere between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds of seed per acre of farmland. If you were to make your own flax milk, you would need just a quarter cup of flaxseeds to make 6 cups of flax milk, which is more or less the size of commercial flax milk containers. If 3 cups make up roughly one pound of seeds, then that’s one heck of a lot of flax milk.
We’re off to a promising start- but it gets even better. According to the Alternative Agriculture department at Iowa State University, flax grows best when it is co-planted with other crops, especially buckwheat. This co-planting makes the use of farmland way more efficient by benefiting the soil, encouraging healthy crop growth, and giving the farmers two lots of crops to sell at harvest.
Interestingly, flax is not the highest yielding crop. It isn’t even close- one acre of farmland can give a massive 1,400 to 2,600 pounds of almonds per acre of farmland- but flax beats almonds in terms of environmental impact on one key factor. It’s time to talk water.
Water is essential yet problematic
Despite almonds beating flax seeds in terms of pound per acre, they fall short in the race to top of the environmental impact scale when it comes to water usage.
Incredibly, just 16 almonds can take an incredible 15.3 gallons of water to grow. Even worse, because almonds only grow in very specific climates. Over 90% of the world almonds come from farms in California. This is problematic because although it grows 80% of the world’s almond supply, California is a drought-prone state. With 10% of California’s water supply goes directly to almond farming, this problem is only set to get worse.
Luckily, flaxseeds are a totally different story. Rather than growing on a tree like almonds, a flax plant is more grass-like. They therefore grow quickly and don’t need very moist soil or constant watering. In total, farming flax seeds requires up to up to 15x less water than you would need grow the same amount of almonds. Less demand for water means less siphoning water away from surrounding environmentsand eliminates the need for irrigation ditches. Irrigation ditches are long, often deep, trenches dug into the ground to collect water and channel it to find use in industry, domestic, and farming settings. These ditches have found use for thousands of years by humans, but their scale is ever increasing in the era of farming and industrial expansion.
Once seeds are planted and watered, they will begin to grow. But it’s not just water that can determine how environmentally friendly a crop is. Consider every step of the farming process.
We know now that flax performs well in terms of water use. But does that continue through the whole plant lifecycle? We need to think about the type of seed that first goes in the ground. Focusing on how the seed grows and what kind of condition the soil has after harvest.
Let’s see if flax stays at the top of the list when choosing an environmentally friendly plant milk.
Flax is Non-GMO
Genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are plants and animals which have had their DNA artificially altered. There are many reasons scientists and farmers do this, from increasing yield to boosting nutrient content, or protecting against disease. But their use can be controversial. When a GMO seed is planted, the mature plant could go on to pollinate non-GMO plants that grow around the farm. This can have a downstream effect on local plant populations.
If you already have the perfect non-GMO breakfast but still have worry then choose flax milk. There are currently no GMO flax varieties on the market. Therefore, you can easily find a guarantee that the flax milks and seeds that you are buying are non-GMO. This isn’t because making GMO flax is impossible, but because there is no demand for it. In 2001, a herbicide-resistant flax plant was released to the commercial market and was quickly pulled when there was a huge backlash from both farmers and consumers. Since then, there is no company that is willing to take the flax plant and genetically modify it.
Chemicals and Flax
Compared to other similar crops, flax cultivation typically uses fewer pesticides and doesn’t need as much fertilizer. All of this helps to maintain the surrounding soil quality and protect the insects and plants that live alongside. The need for extra work while growing flax is so low that organic flaxseed is easy to find in markets. The ease to grow and the customer demand is driving more farmers to switch to fully organic flaxseed production.
Crop Rotation and Soil Health
If you know a lot about agriculture, you may know that plants are often rotated around different fields as the years go by. This is a process with the name, ‘crop rotation’. Sinc growing the same crop over and over in the same place can deplete the nutrients of the soil. Eventually new plants will stop growing properly, an expensive and time-consuming mistake to fix.
Some plants, like hemp, are self-compatible. Meaning they can continuously grow and thrive without allowing the soil to recover in between harvest periods. Flax is not self-compatible, but that is a good thing because it encourages farmers to diversify the crops they grow. We know that biodiversity is an important factor in protecting the environment, and intensive farming of a single crop disrupts this natural order. Flax is easy to grow and will grow in most climates. It makes an excellent crop for use in between rotations of different types of plants while promoting agricultural biodiversity. In fact, when you compare flax to other food crops, such as wheat, oats, and barley- flax is the least damaging to local biodiversity.
Carbon emissions are probably the most well-known aspect of environmental impact when it comes to… well anything! Food is no different. Variations in farming practice, produce type and product transportation all create their own carbon footprints. Switching to a vegan diet is thought to be the best thing you can do for your carbon footprint. Specifically, eating flaxseeds is a big part of making that switch.
It takes just 1.8kg of CO2 (the main greenhouse gas used to measure carbon emissions) to grow 1kg of flaxseeds. Although the idea of seed farming releasing carbon dioxide is alarming: the same amount of beef produces a massive 27.1kg of CO2. Another big plus for flax milk is that flax seeds don’t have digestive systems. Therefore, they don’t create greenhouses gasses like cows do when they digest.
In the final analysis, flax milk being a great option for the environmentally conscious comes down to the plant itself. Flax can grow in a huge variety of climates. In 2021, industrial flax production happens on farms in the US, Canada, China, India, Europe and Ethiopia. This makes it easier for suppliers (and you) to manufacture milk with flax seeds that did not need to find transportation halfway across the world.
Added together, it’s easy to see how this special seed has managed to climb its way into the world of plant milks. It gives you the nutrients you need to stay healthy, while supporting positive impacts in the environment. With everyone from farmers to manufacturers to consumers wising up to the potential of this great little seed, flax milk has a great future.
In short, you can sip a little easier knowing that the flax milk on your cereal hasn’t cost the earth.