In late 2016, the Swedish company Oatly set up production in North America and began shopping its oat-derived “milk” to New York City’s latte cognoscenti. By the next autumn, oat milk had conquered the city’s “most esteemed coffee bars” at a “practically unheard of” rate, according to the coffee trade magazine Sprudge.
Chic cafés peddling a grainy Scandinavian-inspired formula may sound too twee for words. But the market for dairy alternatives is growing quickly in the United States, where negative perceptions of cow’s milk have created a thirst for substitutes made from coconut, peas, and hemp. Oat milk offers another benefit. If consumption approaches levels now enjoyed by industry leader almond milk, those urban hipsters may be the vanguard of a soil revolution.
Oat milk has three times the protein of its almond-based rival and at least twice the fiber, though it’s higher in carbs. When it comes to each drink’s environmental footprint, there’s no comparison. As I first reported in 2014, in California, home to 80 percent of the world’s production of almonds, nut trees are swallowing up land once devoted to crops that could be fallowed during droughts. California’s almond crop commands more than three times as much of the state’s annual water supply as Los Angeles. As droughts become more frequent, few ecologists would argue for extra almond groves.