Is Your Oat Milk Being Impacted by Climate Change?
We can't get enough of oat milk—it's the creamy addition to our lattes and cold brews, of course, but we're cooking and baking both sweet and savory dishes with it, as well. In fact, oat milk is now the second most popular plant-based milk, yet the drought this past year has left producers scrambling to find enough oats to meet demand. Here we look at how this may impact you.
"The last oat crop, due to the drought, was the worst in decades," says Christina Dorr Drake, co-founder and C.E.O. of direct-to-consumer oat milk brand Willa's Kitchen. "Ask anyone in the oat business, and they will say oats are extremely hard to obtain this year because of it, and as a result, oats are being shipped all over the world to make up the demand."
A staple of the food world, oats grow best in cool climates. In the U.S. South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are some of the top producing oat states. Yet, the Western U.S. is currently experiencing the worst drought in more than 1,200 years. During the 2021 growing season that resulted in the smallest oat harvest ever for U.S.-based producers and in Canada, the world's biggest exporter of oats, extreme heat resulted in oat production at an 11-year low.
"We are seeing a challenging year in terms of sourcing quality oats," says Eric DeBlieck, director of crop sciences for Grain Millers, Inc., an ingredient supplier. "The Canadian Prairies Provinces, the largest producers of North American oats, were impacted by a significant drought in the summer of 2021. This has tightened the supply for the oat milling industry, making it harder and more expensive to get quality oats. All of this has led to record oat prices for farmers. The drought-affected both conventional and organic growers in the same manner, causing similar challenges."
How It Impacts Oat Milk Makers
For oat milk makers such as Willa's and SunOpta, Inc., which has a line of oat-based beverages including organic oat coffee creamers, the drought has meant they had to expand where they are buying oats from, pay more and, in some cases, increase prices.
"We are getting oats from more growers than ever before in order to expand our supply and make sure we're covered," says Lauren McNamara, vice president and assistant general manager, SunOpta. "The drought has forced us to do that, but it's not necessarily a bad thing to expand the supply [and] work with more farmers."
While it would be nice to say that this past year's poor oat crop was a one-time thing, as world temperatures increase due to climate change, droughts could become more common and increased temperatures could also mean increases in pests, weeds, and diseases, meaning we could see more oat crop losses. "Usually we buy oats a few months before we need them; now we're being told we should buy our supply for the whole next year," says Dorr Drake.
Oats, which are a carbon sequester and can help create healthy soil when farmed responsibly, have the potential to be a key ingredient in mitigating the worst effects of the climate crisis.
"I don't want to call it a silver lining, but because there's an increased demand for oats, oat prices are going up, so farmers are being incentivized to grow more oats," says Dorr Drake. "So farmers in the U.S. that may have normally just done corn or soy are now feeling like there is more of an incentive to bring cover crops like oats, which I think is a good thing. I'm also really grateful that our oat suppliers are encouraging farmers to grow more oats and organic oats as well. So the good news is more places in the U.S., in particular, are starting to grow them and not just grow them for animals but grow them for humans."
The exciting thing about oats is that in addition to being an essential ingredient in our morning coffee is that they use less water and land than other types of milk and can be grown in many places, including here in the U.S. "I think because the demand is growing and the prices are going up, it will incentivize farmers to devote more land to oats," says McNamara. "And that's what we're trying to work proactively on, is when there's a choice between what to plant we would like to see oats go in the ground."