Affordability of Plant-Based Mylk
A common assumption is that a vegan diet relies heavily on ingredients that are expensive or hard to find. The truth is that many cuisines across the world have affordable, simple, and nutritious dishes that are naturally vegan or can be easily made vegan. We wouldn’t even have to look too far.
Indian cuisine is made up of many dishes that use absolutely no animal-products; a whole constellation of sabzis (aloo gobi, bhendi fry, chole, kala channa, gobi matar, the list goes on!), sambar, daal, rasam, rotis, pulao, poha, upma, dosas, idlis, and different curries that use coconut milk as their base (while replacing the meat with your preferred alternative).
An obstacle in the vegan diet emerges when we have to make something that explicitly uses dairy alternatives; we want to make a cup of tea, or we want to try baking a cake for a loved one’s birthday. Then, we find ourselves looking for a dairy alternative in plant-based milk (mylk).
The shelves are lined with so many different brands all having different ingredients, but one thing seems to remain constant. Most of them seem a little pricey. Not enough to put us off buying the product, but enough to wonder why mylk is priced higher than dairy. Surely, grinding a bunch of grains or seeds doesn’t warrant a high price, right?
Let’s try and lay out the factors that determine the affordability of a mylk.1. Manufacturing
The manufacture of mylks involves crushing the ingredients and then processing them using technology and methods that are complex or experimental. These processes remove particles remaining from the crushing stage, inactivate unwanted enzymes in the milk, and add more nutrients through fortification. More elaborate processes and experimental technology result in a more expensive product for the consumer.2. Economies of Scale
Consumers of mylk range from members of the vegan movement to people who have a restricted diet for health reasons, to ‘flexitarians’ who don’t really have a strict diet, but experiment with plant-based food from time to time. They comprise the consumer base that provides mylk companies a bulk of their revenue. However, despite the significant gains worldwide in plant-based diets, mylks still occupy only a fraction of the market. This makes it difficult for manufacturers to buy bulk quantities of the raw materials required to slash prices; they haven’t yet achieved economies of scale.3. Taxation
Mylk seems to be taxed as a premium product. India’s current GST on soya milk is at 12%, while all other mylks are taxed at 18%. The 18% GST places products such as cashew-oat milk, almond milk, etc. in the same category as ‘Other non-alcoholic beverages’. Now, you may ask, “Why is this new? All products have a tax on them!” or “This is the way the market is! Why are you complaining?”. Here’s why—4. Dairy Subsidies
There is no tax on dairy products. In fact, (and this is a global phenomenon), dairy products are subsidised heavily by governments because they are considered an essential good necessary for the poorest in society. Additionally, humans have been relying on the milk of other animals for centuries. Across the globe, there are traditions of dairy farming that stretch back through history. Governments have realised this and sought to use this as a way to provide easy nutrition for their people. It also presents an entire economy of dairy farmers that, when tapped into, can prove very profitable for everyone involved.
India has a history that spans close to half a century of governments boosting the dairy industry through subsidies and education about modern technology. The White Revolution or Operation Flood began in 1970 and was a concerted attempt by the government to boost dairy production in India. In 2019, the government allocated ₹ 2240 crores for schemes within the dairy industry.
All of these factors make mylk more expensive than dairy. Until the perception of mylk as an actual alternative to dairy is more widely accepted, and the diet itself becomes more popular, chances are that the price of mylk will stay where it is.
However, change is around the corner. A fair number of food conglomerates have been exploring plant-based protein as a response to the surge created by consumers looking for more sustainable diets. [See here for a research report on plant-based diets and sustainability funded by one of the biggest dairy companies in the world]. Companies across the globe, for different reasons, are looking to be a part of the shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle. We’re getting there, slowly, and in enough time, your favourite mylk will be the same price as dairy.