13

Raising a large animal seems, at first glance, like a much less efficient way to produce some kind of 'milk' than merely growing plants and processing them with machines. Yet somehow, where I live at least, soya milk costs more than twice as much as cow's milk.

I understand that there are many factors causing this, including government subsidies, supply and demand, and technology and methods developed over the centuries to make the process as efficient as possible. What I'd really like to know is how much soya milk would cost if the industry was as large and mature as the cow's milk industry and thus had similar advantages. But because that's such a complicated question, I'll ask something simpler:

  1. How much does it cost to produce a litre of soya milk?
  2. How much does it cost to produce a litre of cow's milk?

Both of these depend hugely on context, so I'd like to know the cost under ideal conditions, i.e. all else being equal, an answer is better if the costs are lower.

Hopefully this will give some idea of how much more or less money everyone would be spending if veganism was widespread, and how much veganism may become easier in the future as the market changes.

Information about other plant milks is also welcome, especially if I'm wrong in my assumption that soya milk is the cheapest to produce.

  • what's wrong with tea/juices? ;) – GabrielF Feb 15 '17 at 16:02
  • 1
    @GabrielF what about them? They're not generally used in place of milk. – Alex Hall Feb 15 '17 at 16:04
  • what I mean is that looking for "replacements" is usually harder (for me at least) than to adapt to your new lifestyle. – GabrielF Feb 15 '17 at 16:09
  • 1
    Tea/juice is great for drinking, but terrible for cooking (e.g.). Since the question is really ultimately about large scale economics, you could definitely answer that tea/juice is a good alternative -- but only if you're talking about the cost of producing a comparable volume of tea or juice, compared to milk ;) – Erica Feb 15 '17 at 16:14
  • 2
    @GabrielF I appreciate that, especially for some things like cheese, but there are foods I enjoy eating (cereal, oatmeal, protein smoothies) which I would very much like to not give up, and for which a plant milk is much better than tea or juice. – Alex Hall Feb 15 '17 at 16:15
11

This question really made me curious. Where I live (Romania, developing country within Eastern Europe), it's the same: soy milk is (much) more expensive than cow's milk.

The price difference has many causes. To name a few:

  • subsidies from the government
  • organic farming is usually done on a smaller scale, leading to a smaller volume of obtained food
  • production cost for organic farming
  • much less demand for soy milk as opposed to cow milk. This source indicates about 200-300 litres/year/capita for cow milk, as opposed to less than 1 litre/year/capita for soy milk according to this source. This is especially important, because much of the cost (for many products) is derived from fixed costs, so products sold in large quantities have an advantage.
  • high gross margins for producers. An example is Vitasoy International Holdings Ltd which reported a Gross margin of about 50% in the recent year.

It is very hard to estimate the price if soy milk volumes would be at the same order of magnitude with those of cow milk. According to this source, production cost for milk in UK is about 0.62 pounds (0.77$ or 0.73€).

[EDIT] As suggested, I will try to improve the answer by providing extra information about soy milk production cost.

Home made

According to this simple recipe, home made soy milk costs about 0.5$ per 2.75 quarts (2.6 liters) which is 0.2$ per liter.. So, it is clearly less expensive than cow milk and much cheaper than commercial soy milk (if time, effort, electricity and other small factors are ignored).

Results can be improved by using specialized devices such as this one (about 129$ when writing this answer).

Industrially made

From the industrial perspective, it is not efficient to obtain soy milk only, but to also obtain other products from soy, to alleviate fixed costs (equipment, salaries, power etc.).

According to this source the following are the costs for equipment required for processing in various scenarios:

  • The French Oil Mill Machinery Company example 1 - 1570 grands
  • The French Oil Mill Machinery Company example 2 - 647 grands
  • Example 3 - 112 grands

So, in most cases the initial investment is quite big. The final cost will depend on many factors such as salaries, power bills, equipment maintenance.



Side note

One important aspect is that not only money would be saved, if people switched to soy-milk. According to this article:

  • CO2 footprint

Cornell University scientist, David Pimentel, has found it takes about 14 kilo-calories (kcal) of fossil-fuel energy to produce 1kcal of milk protein using conventional milk production. Organically produced milk might require a little less than 10kcal of fossil-fuel energy per kcal.

In comparison, Pimentel’s data suggests that in a conventional soybean production system, one kcal of fossil energy invested produces about 3.2kcal of soybean. For 1kcal of fossil energy invested in organic soybean production, you get an average of 3.8kcal of soybeans. This means it takes between .26 and .31kcal of fossil fuel to make 1kcal of soybeans (contrasted with 10-14kcal to make 1kcal of dairy milk protein).

  • Water footprint

The water footprint of the soy milk products analysed in this study was 28% of the water footprint of the global average cow milk.

  • Phosphorus need

Another important environmental parameter to consider is how much phosphorus is used to produce food. Modern agriculture is dependent on phosphorus derived from phosphate rock. It’s a non-renewable resource, and current global reserves may be depleted in 50 to 100 years. Meat and livestock production are associated with high phosphorus use and a vegetarian diet demands significantly less phosphate fertilizer than a meat-based diet.

Without more precise information, it is really hard to answer your questions. But one thing is sure: under the same conditions (subsidies, volume) soy milk would be significantly both cheaper and environmentally sustainable than cow's milk.

  • I appreciate the effort but I don't think this answers my question at all. – Alex Hall Feb 23 '17 at 10:28
  • That's true. But a precise answer is more related to Economics than to Vegetarianism. One of the references illustrates how much data is needed to understand the cost of production. Another factor is that the cost is also derived from other products that are obtained from soy, other than milk. – Alexei Feb 23 '17 at 10:32
  • since the question is about the cost of production of soy milk, and you only address this point with a link to an article, perhaps you could improve your answer by including the key points from the article? – Zanna Feb 23 '17 at 12:25
  • 1
    (@AlexHall & @Zanna) I have managed to find out more information about production costs and added to my answer. Thanks for the feedback. – Alexei Feb 23 '17 at 16:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.