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Last week, 82-year-old actor James Cromwell (Uncle Ewan on succession) glued his hand to a Starbucks counter in NYC. That it’s something Ewan’s grandson Greg would do by accident on the show is only coincidental: It was the environmentalist Cromwell’s way of protesting the coffee chain’s upcharge for plant-based milks.
While most people probably aren’t concerned about what the human star of Babe: Pig in the City sticks himself to, Cromwell’s glue-in highlights a reality for vegans and those with dairy allergies: Things tend to cost a fate more†
The lactose intolerance tax
In January, Starbucks stores in the UK made all dairy alternatives free. But in the US, Starbucks locations typically charge an additional 70 cents for nondairy options. Thinking broadly about the cost of (essentially) blending oats and water versus the cost of raising a cow to maturity, the pricing may seem odd. And it’s not just Starbucks charging a premium, either.
Across the industry, the retail price of nondairy, plant-based milk is around twice the price of dairy milk, according to Mintec, which analyzes food commodity costs. So what’s keeping those oat milk prices high? A few things:
- Plant-based milks have a costlier blending and bottling process, along with higher costs for packaging and marketing.
- There’s a higher demand for dairy milk—61% of US households primarily drink it, compared to the 23% that opt for plant-based—so production costs are more spread out and retail prices are cheaper.
But while those factors may help explain why plant-based milks are expensive, they don’t fully spell out why dairy milk is so cheap. that has a lot to do with massive government grants that the US dairy industry receives each year. In 2015, Big Milk received $22.2 billion in direct and indirect grants. A 2018 Canadian study found that 73% of US dairy producers’ revenue came from government support.
- That support is a lifeline for a beverage with a declining US fan base: Milk consumption rates have been falling around 2.6% a year for the past decade.
- And lower demand for dairy is leading to overproduction: The country currently has a record high 1.4 billion pounds (~900,000 cubic yards) of surplus cheese in storage.
Zoom out: While around 36% of Americans are lactose intolerant (a condition that mainly affects people of color), the US is still living in its Got Milk? era. Given that the carbon footprint of cow milk is about 3x that of alternatives like oat milk, environmental advocates like Cromwell are hoping that removing cost burdens will lead to more people giving nondairy options a chance.—MK