Starbucks’ Trendy New Nondairy ‘Milk’ Option May Be Good for the Environment

The coffee chain picked coconuts over almonds for its second dairy alternative option.

(Photo: Courtesy Starbucks)

Feb 4, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Lattes these days are made with far more than plain old cow's milk. There's hemp, almond, and soy on the menu at my neighborhood café, and if that's not enough variety, I can head up the street to a third-wave, hipster-destination coffee bar famous for its house-made macadamia-almond milk blend—and The New York Times is on it! But Starbucks? Since 1997, the ubiquitous chain has offered nothing other than soy as a nondairy alternative. That's about to change: Starbucks announced on Wednesday that on Feb. 17, coconut milk will have its debut behind the espresso machines.

Sitting here in drought-weary California, picking coconut over almond milk would seem to be an environmentally friendly decision by Starbucks. With 80 percent of the global crop of almonds tapping the state’s increasingly dusty water resources and with the drought running into its fourth year, the otherwise healthy nut has earned something of a villain's status. Stocking the more than 20,000 locations across the country with enough faux milk to feed the almond latte–loving masses would be a windfall for the $11 billion California almond industry but would continue to dry up water resources.

How does coconut milk fare in the realm of sustainability? While Starbucks declined to name its supplier when asked by Reuters, coconut farming, which is largely centered in South and Southeast Asia, tends to have a light ecological touch. According to a comparative carbon footprint analysis by So Delicious—which, bear in mind, makes coconut milk products—the tropical dairy alternative produces far less CO2 than both almond and soy milk and drastically less than cow's milk. The data, sourced from the 2012 U.S. Dairy Innovation Center LCA, show that coconut milk also has a significantly lower water demand than either almonds or soy.

If there's a reason for concern, it has less to do with how Starbucks' coconut-milk purchases will affect the environment than with the people who farm the tropical palms. In the Philippines, which produces the second-largest crop in the world, the trees are grown on smallholder farms, usually between five and 10 acres. According to the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, the livelihood of one in five Filipinos is tied to the coconut industry. Increased demand could be a boon to such countries, but according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the trees in countries such as India, Thailand, and Indonesia, the leading producer, are getting on in age and will eventually stop producing altogether. In 2013, demand for coconut products was increasing by 10 percent annually, but production only rose by 2 percent, according to FAO. With American demand getting a further boost from Starbucks and smallholder farms facing an inevitable production crisis, the small-scale, environmentally friendly sector could end up being consolidated and intensified.

The fate of the global coconut trade won't be decided just yet, however. So in the meantime, enjoy those non-GMO, dairy-free Starbucks lattes.