No Cow, No Problem? Not So Fast.
Plant-based milks have become extremely popular over the past ten years. The varieties available have surged as well. Once, soy was about the only non-dairy alternative on store shelves. Today, soy jostles for shelf space with almond, cashew, coconut, oat, hemp, and pea milks. As of 2018, these non-dairy alternatives accounted for 13% of total retail milk sales in the U.S. and 8% in the United Kingdom. Sales of other plant-based alternatives to ice cream, creamer, yogurt, and cheese also doubled between 2017 and 2019. However, this trend is due less to veganism and more to the rising numbers of flexitarians.
This case study examines the politics and consumer sentiments around plant milks as part of the broader trends in plant-based foods. To distinguish plant milks from their dairy counterparts, the authors coined the term “mylk.” — that term will be used to designate plant-based beverages for the remainder of this discussion.
Conventional dairy production is in an economic crisis from the combined effects of overproduction and declining consumer demand. Milk consumption is particularly low among younger generations, The public is increasingly aware of dairy’s connection to environmental degradation and climate change. Against this backdrop, mylk producers are marketing their products as wholesome and convenient. They paint a contrast between their product and milk, which they frame as environmentally damaging and cruel. Mylk brands are attempting to make their products palatable, but still disruptive to the status quo. In the context of this research, “palatable” is a multisensory experience. It arises from both the marketing allure, packaging, and the taste of the mylks themselves.
The researchers explore the concept of “palatable disruption” as a “non-disruptive disruption.” These types of disruptions provide technologies that deliver solutions without changing the causes of the underlying problems. The mainstreaming of plant-based dairy is a case in point. Study authors identify three techniques applied to this particular disruption: (1) plant mylks look, act, and taste like the milk they replace; (2) drinking mylks provides for “virtue signaling” of one’s environmental and health values; and (3) by consuming plant mylks, consumers reinforce the existing industrial food system, thereby maintaining the economic and political status quo.
This palatable disruption encourages consumers to care enough about the environment, health, and animal welfare to adopt mylks. Indeed, the U.K. company Plenish Drinks exhorts, “If you want to change the world, change your milk.” And yet, the market is dominated by a few large multinationals such as Dannon, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo. These companies and their investors are seizing the opportunity to capture this expanding global market and shape food futures.
The mylks themselves are often highly processed, with various components added to increase sweetness, perceived creaminess, and make the mylks as similar as possible to their dairy counterparts. To further the sensory experience, mylks are found chilled in the dairy case in containers that look like those for dairy milk. However, about 80% of households who buy plant mylks still purchase dairy milk. For flexitarians, these mylks are aspirational, allowing them to feel like they are challenging the status quo.
As animal advocates, we applaud developments that reduce animal cruelty. Unfortunately, this article suggests that plant mylks are not a panacea. Mylk production relies on commodity food systems that care little for economic fairness or environmental sustainability. For instance, more than 80% of global almond production comes from monoculture agricultural systems in drought-prone areas of California. These production practices reinforce the models of industrial agriculture. As a result, the move to plant-based mylks may not further the transition to a more environmentally sound food system.
Rather than allowing the food industry to position mylk as a solution to environmental and health damage, advocates can push back. There is no reason why plant-based mylk production cannot be socially just, ethical, and a nutritious way to feed people. Using alternative messaging and legislative reform, we can work to ensure that both animals and the planet receive the potential benefits of these new plant-based foods.