What's a sustainable and healthy (and affordable) diet?

food_basket.pngOur Climate Declaration includes ‘growing local food, eating less meat and dairy’ in its vision of a climate-safe Aotearoa. Why did we include this?

Drawdown, a compendium of climate change solutions edited by Paul Hawken, lists changing to a plant-based diet as the third most powerful emissions-reducing intervention possible, surpassed only by avoiding release of refrigerants and stabilizing the number of humans on the earth.

In the Declaration we pulled out the barest few essential elements of a sustainable and healthy diet. Here is some of the rest of the story.

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) defines sustainable diets as: 

“Those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”

What’s the problem?

There are several.

  1. Climate breakdown. Meat and dairy production accounts for about 15% of global emissions, far ahead of most other foods. Agriculture in general accounts for nearly half of NZ’s emissions, with two-thirds of this being methane from cattle and sheep. Not counted in NZ’s agricultural emissions is the serious loss of the carbon sequestering capacity of Indonesian peatland and rainforest that have been cleared (often by burning) to grow palm oil. Millions of tonnes of palm oil kernel is fed to NZ livestock each year.
  2. Feeding the planet. There are seven billion people on the planet, headed towards perhaps ten billion mid-century. Food systems are already under threat. It’s far from clear how ten billion people can be fed. The use of extensive agricultural areas to grow grains and pulses to feed livestock to produce meat and dairy products when the grains and pulses could feed many more humans directly is neither rational nor moral. A case can be made for grazing animals on land unsuitable for cropping.
  3. We are in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction of species. Habitat loss, especially of rainforest, is largely driven by conversion of forest to agricultural land to feed and graze livestock. Habitat loss in NZ is a critical issue.
  4. Human health. Evidence accumulates on the benefits to health and longevity of plant-based diets. There is now strong scientific evidence of an increased risk of colorectal cancer with processed meat consumption, some evidence of red meats being associated with colorectal cancer and some evidence of an association between red and processed meat and cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. This is important as these diseases collectively impose substantial health loss for New Zealanders and also large costs on publicly-funded health systems.
  5. Humane treatment of animals. There is an inevitable tension between the use of animals by humans, especially at industrial levels, and an attitude of compassion and respect for those animal lives. Poultry and pig farming is perhaps the worst examples of this.
  6. Soil degradation and topsoil loss from land use change in agriculture.
  7. Water use. It takes 15,000 litres to make 1kg of beef, 3000 for 1kg of cheese, 300 for 1kg of potatoes. Pollution of waterways is a serious issue in New Zealand.


Our Climate Declaration focusses on climate breakdown but includes the values of biodiversity, economic fairness and living in harmony with Nature.

What are the solutions?

Meat and dairy are not the only sustainability issues in our food systems.  The German and Swedish governments provide guidelines for healthy and sustainable eating. Here is a more complete set of guidelines derived from these:

  • Eat seasonally. Minimise greenhouse-grown purchases, as they often involve coal-burning.
  • Eat locally grown foods or grow your own
  • Eat organic (may conflict with affordability)
  • Eat a largely or wholly plant-based diet
  • Eat less processed food
  • Minimise packaging, especially plastic
  • Buy Fair Trade when possible
  • Minimise shopping transport emissions
  • Minimise food waste

The options for moving to a largely or wholly plant-based diet are many - minimal to maximal.

  • ‘Meatless Mondays’, or meat every second day.
  • Use meat, not as the centrepiece of a meal, but as a complement to a meal, as in Asian cuisine, using smaller portions.
  • Vegetarianism in its various forms
  • Vegan diet
  • Use of laboratory-grown meat as part of the diet.

The University of Otago Public Health department is researching diets for New Zealanders that are not only healthy and sustainable but also affordable. Healthy low cost diets also tend to be low on emissions. They were able to outline a fully nutritional, low emissions diet costing $3.17 a day in 2013 figures.

Taking this beyond the family

Our Climate Declaration is intent on extending emissions reduction action beyond the individual and the family. Many of us are part of institutions that involve eating together – schools, businesses, hospitals, churches, catering for social occasions. Adapting and promoting the above guidelines in these settings would be a major contribution to climate action.

Read more:

Eating Better is a UK alliance of organisations helping people eat less meat and dairy.http://www.eating-better.org/about.html

Sustain is a UK organization. It has a publication, Good Food at Work, on ‘how your organization can improve the food within your office environment, to benefit staff, and help create a more sustainable food and farming system fit for the future.’


WWF has Livewell Principles for healthy low carbon eating. https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/livewell-healthy-eating-healthy-planet

The Italian Barilla Institute promotes a ‘double pyramid’ model – one pyramid based on healthy amounts of types of foods, and the other based on a sustainability dimension.https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2015.00009/full

Medact (a UK organization for a ‘safer, fairer and better world) has a useful critique of the UK national food guide and a comparison table with the food guides of other European countries. https://www.medact.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/A-Healthy-Sustainable-Food-Future-1.pdf

The Food and Climate Network has an excellent, science-based discussion : http://www.fcrn.org.uk/sites/default/files/fcrn_what_is_a_sustainable_healthy_diet_final.pdf

NZ’s food guidelines are here.  They are based on nutrition values, not sustainability nor affordability. https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/eating-activity-guidelines-for-new-zealand-adults-oct15_0.pdf


Thanks to Jeanette Fitzsimons and Nick Wilson for helpful comments.