Is Plant-Based Butter More Environmentally Friendly Than Dairy?
One of the best ways to understand the environmental impact of different products is through life cycle assessments or LCAs. These assessments look at a product from start to finish, and the resources used from the moment a seed goes into the ground (or an animal is born) to when that plant or animal is eventually harvested or killed, to when the resulting products are packaged, shipped, and consumed. We’ve covered many such studies in our Library.
This study is a compilation of LCAs of various plant-based butter and cream substitutes, as well as their dairy counterparts. The authors note from the outset that they are not comparing anything beyond the environmental footprint of the products, including the economic or health effects of their widespread adoption. Instead, the study strictly looked at the environmental impact of current scales of production. The functional unit used was 1kg (or about 2.2lbs) of the product at the consumer level – packaged, processed, and ready-to-use.
A total of 228 alternatives were explored, including 201 with no animal fat and 27 with a small amount included. 212 of the products were butter alternatives, and 16 were cream alternatives. The LCAs included every major step of making the product and delivering it to consumers – growing and harvesting the crops, processing them into edible form, packaging them, and delivering them to stores. Excluded were things that have a tangential relationship to production, like administrative work, worker commuting, and – for dairy products – cow insemination. Data was collected from the manufacturer where available, otherwise secondary data was used to make estimates. Eighteen environmental impacts were looked at, including land use, water use, and emissions.
The study found that overall emissions for plant-based products were generally lower than dairy products. The majority of effects came, unsurprisingly, from growing the crops used in producing the oil, as well as the production of raw milk. Dairy products with the lowest fat content have roughly equivalent emissions to the highest-impact plant-based products. Water consumption was less clear-cut, with the main relationship being between calorie and fat content and water consumption, not plant/animal origin. Plant-based products have lower land footprints, in general, than dairy, although as with emissions, there is some overlap between the worst-performing plant products and the best-performing dairy products.
In addition, the authors ran some tests with the “worst-case scenario” plant-based production and “best-case scenario” dairy production. Plant-based products were all assumed to be made using the ingredients and processes with the highest impacts, while dairy was assumed to be using ones with the lowest impacts. Even then, the vast majority of plant-based products had a smaller environmental impact than dairy.
The study tells us something that we’re more and more certain of, and the science is increasingly clear: plants have a lower environmental impact than animals. This is true even for highly-processed plant-based foods, like butter and cream replacements. The authors note that plant-based products can become even less harmful through improvements in supply chain efficiency, farming methods, and recipe changes. Only when assuming the absolute worst-case scenario for plant products, and best-case scenario for dairy, does the comparison become even close.
For animal advocates, this is obviously good news! We need to bring awareness to the fact that plant-based products are less harmful to the environment than their animal-sourced counterparts. As production methods become even more efficient at scale, the gap should widen even farther. As environmentalism further enters the mainstream, animal advocates need to be consistently raising the benefits of a plant-based diet, including the environmental benefits.