Is cashew milk bad for the environment?

  • Date: May 14, 2022

As a growing number of people turn towards a vegan diet, replacements for dairy milk have never been more sought after. The milk substitute market was worth nearly $19.5 billion worldwide in 2021 and is expected to reach a staggering $37.66 billion by 2026. Cashew milk is a popular choice in the market being both nutritious and free from animal cruelty. However, with our increasing need to be more kind to the planet, it raises the question – is cashew milk bad for the environment?

What is cashew milk made of?

Cashew milk can either be shop-bought or homemade. For the homemade variety, the main ingredients are cashews, water, and any flavorings of your choice. Rinse the nuts for a few hours, blend them with water, drain if required and flavor – it couldn’t be simpler! Lots of recipes are available but find one of our favorites here, courtesy of Cookie and Kate.

Shop-bought cashew milk, although convenient, can be expensive like other nut milks. However, it does often come fortified with extra vitamins which some people may prefer. It is produced much like the homemade variety – just on a much larger scale.

Cashew food miles

Foods that are produced across the globe are, in effect, local to everyone no matter where they live. Items need to travel less distance to reach the kitchen table. Since less food miles generally equates to less transport emissions, ideally, we should be aiming to consume primarily local produce.

Although they can be grown in some areas of the U.S., Cashews are primarily produced in India, Vietnam and Africa. In addition to the miles that they have to travel to get to us, those grown in Africa are often transported to India and Vietnam to be processed. A lot of stages are involved in the processing phase and Africa producers often do not have the modern machinery to make it easier. The carbon footprint for these cashews are even higher due to the extra travel.  

Cashews are thirsty

Knowing how much a water that items take to grow is an extremely important part of deciding if they are environmentally friendly or not. Large amounts of water used is an important consideration since it means water has been diverted from other ecosystems that may rely on it to thrive.

Unfortunately, cashews need a significant amount of water during their production. It has been estimated that every pound of cashews produced requires an incredible 1704 gallons of water.  Although this will vary from region to region.

Pesticide use in cashew nuts

Chemical pesticides are widely used due to significant pest pressures in growing areas. Insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are deployed to help farmers increase their crop yield. 

The use of chemical pesticides comes with risks. As well as potential health risks to humans when consuming cashew products, chemical pesticides also have a dramatic environmental impact. Pesticides can find their way into different sources of water, harming the plant life and even causing physiological changes in aquatic animal species. Soil is also polluted by chemical pesticide use. They interfere with soil communities and alter dynamics, complex interactions that ensure fertility can be lost. Needless to say, opt for organic cashew milk/cashews where possible.

Land use in cashew production

You’d be forgiven for thinking cashew and cashew milk production was all doom and gloom. However, in terms of land-use it does have minimal environmental impact. Cashew farmers can also adopt different planting systems to ensure the optimal yield per area. Making the most of the space is good for the environment – and their bottom line.

One of the main advantages that cashew milk has over dairy milk is the little land that is needed. Dairy cows need a significant amount of space to live and extra land is needed to grow their food too. Obviously, cashews do not have this excess need for land or the soil degradation that comes along with constant cow grazing.

The bottom line

Although cashew milk has advantages over dairy milk in terms of environmental impact, it is far from perfect. Cashews, and its milk products, often need to travel significant distances to reach grocery store shelves – sometimes via separate processing facilities. The high water footprint of cashews and extensive pesticide use also pose their own environmental problems. Investment and adoption of more eco-friendly practices could significantly improve the negative impact of cashew milk on the environment.