Fact check: Is it true that veganism is good for us and the planet?

A bowl of vegetable salads.

Photo credit: Unsplash

Veganism, a practice where only food derived from plants are eaten, and animal products are abstained from, has been on the rise, with propagators saying it is good for animal welfare and that it helps to reduce risks of certain health problems.

According to Soylent,  10 per cent of adults in the United States of America identify as vegan or vegetarian, with approximately 79 million people in the world identifying as vegan.

It states that  68.1 per cent of people motivated to turn vegan are motivated by animal welfare, 17.4 per cent for health reasons and 9.7 per cent for environment and sustainability reasons. Besides the USA, Other countries with the largest number of vegans, according to Soylent, include  Austria, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.

A vegan diet, says Medical News Today,  involves eating only foods comprising plants, while avoiding all animal products such as dairy, eggs and meat.as a result, they will tend to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, which provides various nutrients.

Even though veganism has been praised for promoting better heart health, lowering the risk of cancer, promoting weight loss and lowering risk of type 2 diabetes, vegans are advised to be careful to ensure they get nutrients  that people  obtain from animal products.

Lead University researchers, in a study published in BMC, a medical journal, established that vegetarian women  who do not eat meat and fish have a higher risk of hip fractures in later life as compared to meat eaters.

While conducting the study, the researchers studied more than 26318 middle aged women, with 822 hip fracture cases being recorded over roughly 20 years, with significant considerations made on their age and factors such as smoking.

 The scientists attributed this to lower intake of nutrients linked to healthy bone and muscle formation, even as they noted that the average Body mass index BMI among vegetarians was slightly lower than the average of those who eat meat regularly.

While commenting on the study, lead author James Webster said that people should not necessarily abandon vegetarian diets, but should focus on ensuring a balanced lifestyle.

Vegetarian diets can vary widely from person to person and can be healthy or unhealthy, just like diets that include animal products. However, it is concerning that vegetarian diets often have lower intakes of nutrients that are linked with bone and muscle health. These types of nutrients generally are more abundant in meat and other animal products than in plants, such as protein, calcium, and other micronutrients,” he said.

‘Low intake of these nutrients can lead to lower bone mineral density and muscle mass, which can make you more susceptible to hip fracture risk.’  He added.

He however cautioned that further research is needed to confirm the same in men and non-European populations  to find out the factors responsible for the risk difference. He also recommended that the role of BMI and nutrients abundant in animal sourced foods needs to be researched.

When considering whether veganism is  good or bad for the planet, veganism is touted as  good because  it  helps reduce consequences of eating animal products. However, studies show that vegan and vegetarian diets also damage the environment, through underlying agricultural practices through which most fruits and vegetables around the world are produced.

Some crops, for example, consume   a lot of water in order to produce a significant amount of produce. Water Footprint Network reported that one single avocado is produced by utilising 60 gallons of water, which is nearly four times the amount of water needed to produce the same amount of oranges.

mangoes also require about 700 litres of water to produce just one kilogram of fruit (with the seeds added to the flesh). Thus, mangoes leave a greater impact on the planet’s water crisis.
Veganism also contributes to deforestation, as arable land needs to be created, oftentimes by deforestation to create more room for commercial crop farming.  

Sustainability Success also states that because soils are home to greenhouse gases, constantly ploughing and turning the soil over releases the gases to the atmosphere, not to mention the use of additional pesticides and chemicals to boost the yield, which may contaminate water and the soil itself.

“Also known as plant-based meat alternatives, meat substitutes have a negative environmental impact worth putting into consideration. The production process of most of these meat alternatives involves significant energy and water inefficiencies; inefficiencies that minimise the benefits that these products aim to provide to the environment. Besides, to make plant products, meatless meats, and highly processed foods that resemble real meat, extra processing has to be done,” says Sustainability Success.

“Fruits and vegetables often cannot be grown in certain locations or during specific seasons, so they must be transported from elsewhere - often thousands of miles before they reach a consumer.  Research into the relationship between fruits, vegetables, and greenhouse gas emissions has found that  air freighted produce (typical examples include U.S. berries and cherries, African green beans and peas) is responsible for very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, fragile or highly perishable foods that are prone to spoilage contribute to the shocking statistic that nearly half of all fruits and vegetables produced globally are wasted each year, a total loss of all the energy embedded in their production, transport, and storage, says American Ostrich Farms.

“Plant-based diets require great amounts of quality soil in which to grow those plants. Soils act as a home for greenhouse gases, and when they are constantly being ploughed and turned over to plant crops, this churning releases greenhouse gases that would otherwise be trapped in healthy soils.  Nutrient-poor soil requires additional chemicals and pesticides  to generate a similar level of crop production, which creates major environmental issues by contaminating soil, water, turf, and other vegetation,” it adds.

Plant based meat alternatives are also faulted for  diminishing the environmental benefits they aim to improve, because of inefficiencies in water and energy processes used to make them.
Potentially, the extra processing required to make plant products resemble meat products adds to the net impact,  and erases the difference between plant-based meats and sustainable animal meats  in terms of GHG emissions, land use, water use, and energy use.

This fact check was produced by Daily Nation with support from Code for Africa’s Pesa Check, International Fact Checking Network and African Fact Checking Alliance Network.