With the climate crisis well and truly upon us, individual actions to bring about change are just as important as government level, business & system change. Some major adaptations will need to take place. The world we live in now will look very different in 20 and 50 years time.

The lives we currently live are the result of the impact of fossil fuels – from the food we eat to the clothes we wear & the cars we drive.

One of the major ways we can help on an individual level is through choosing what we eat (and buy) more carefully.

Eating seasonally and locally as much as possible is not only better for our health, it is also better for the climate. The less anything travels the better.

Choosing to grow your own food or choosing organically grown foods where possible makes a difference, not only to your health but also to the food chain. Bees, insects and a variety of plants all thrive in an organic, biodynamic garden. On the other hand, foods grown in a monoculture with fertilisers (by products of fossil fuels) pesticides and herbicides are not only bad for our health they are also bad for the environment. Insect life (and therefore bird life) and the soil biodiversity suffer. Bees have to be shipped into monocultres to pollinate the crops as they can’t survive the lack of diversity. We know that there is more microbial diversity in organic soils than those that use fertiliser, pesticides & herbicides. These bacteria form part of our own microbiome when we eat these foods. Eating food straight from the garden is best.

Conversley, food that has travelled uses precious carbon mileage, has more pesticide than locally grown food and is often ripened chemically and picked too early for proper maturation. This may also prevent nutrients such as vitamins & phytochemicals from developing. Not to mention food, that is ripened naturally tastes a lot better.

The main bone of contention though, is eating meat in the modern day. Methane is a very potent greenhous gas, far more potent than carbon dioxide but shorter lived. We know that beef in particular releases a high level of methane from the burps of cows. This includes both dairy cows and beef herds. Sheep don’t create as much and chicken has a far lower carbon footprint. It’s safe to say that fish don’t release much carbon in their role in the food chain but the oceans are under other pressure from over fishing. Luckily in New Zelaand our fish stocks are fairly well managed and maintained.

Plants on the other hand store carbon and therefore a plant based diet is becoming more and more fashionable not only by vegans, who choose not to eat meat for animal cruelty reasons, but also for cardiovascular health as well as climate reasons. But is it a good choice nutritionally?

As a nutritionist I know that a well planned vegetarian diet can suit many people and has many benefits. I do not promote veganism merely because as a nutritionist I find it too hard to reconcile the necessity of supplementation to get all of your nutritional needs met. Also a bad vegan diet can easily be void of enough protein which is very important for brain function as well as much, much more. However a vegetarian diet is far easier to maintain in the long term without the need for supplementation (that doesn’t mean you cant take supplements just that you dont have to). A great way to get more protein from a vegetarian diet is by having beans, mushrooms, tofu & lentils daily.

As a nutritionist I also know that meat is an easy way to get protein, vitamin B12, Vitamin A and iron and is part of our ancestors natural diet. There is evidence that a ‘Paleo’ diet (pre-agriculture) was a foraged diet based on seasonal roots, greens, fruits, and some forms of starch as well as meat, fish and shellfish from available sources. We also know that eating too much meat (and too much processed meat) is a potential cause of bowel cancer.

Similarly for dairy there is a group of individuals who can tolerate dairy ‘until the cows come home’ and yet for most of us that is not the case. Lactose tolerance is something we grow out of apart from those with the gene (thought to be about 1/4 of the population).

So what does a healthy diet that is both good for you and good for the climate look like?

Firstly, we need to bear in mind that all bodies are individual and no one diet suits them all. Food intolerance is very real & very individual.

However we can come up with some guidelines to help you impact the climate on an individual level, so here goes:

  1. Eat seasonally and locally for the most part especially when it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables 
  2. Eat mostly plant based (80%) and include beans, lentils, and chickpeas etc as these are a good source of protein
  3. Eats nuts and seeds as snacks as well as dried fruit – these are highly nutritious and have minimal packaging
  4. Include red meat 1 or 2 times a week depending on your needs but for sources of protein substitute with fish and chicken (if you aren’t vegetarian)
  5. Go vegetarian at least 2 or 3 times a week or more
  6. Cut down dairy foods or completely eliminate dairy especially if you are intolerant
  7. Eat from your garden as much as you can. Plant fruit trees and herbs and plant your favourite vegetables and let them go to seed
  8. Have your own compost and make sure you throw cardboard in it as well as food scraps
  9. Eat organically where possible
  10. Avoid fast food & junk food as they come from cheap mass produced meat and other ingredients and use lots of harmful chemicals in the process
  11. Concentrate on buying raw ingredients and making food from scratch instead of buying ready made food
  12. Learn what ingredients to avoid such as Palm oil. Certain plant ingredients are just as bad as intensive agriculture
  13. Dont overconsume – overconsumption is bad for your health and can cause type 2 diabetes but also uses precious resources up much faster. We currently live beyond our means as a species so consuming less of everything will help you to become more carbon neutral as well as healthier
  14. Breastfeed your babies for as long as possible
  15. Try not to waste food – learn how to utilise food with proper storage, packaging & repurposing i.e. stale bread makes good toast

Luckily, these recommendations are both good for you and good for the planet and reconciles how we can approach these two subjects. It’s actually a perfectly balanced diet!

Being aware of your own body is very important when changing your diet so please work with a nutritionist if you aren’t sure what you need. If you need more iron in your diet you can easily supplement a low meat diet. If you need more calcium find out what vegetables contain calcium and so on.

Going vegan won’t save the world on its own and it can cause health problems in some people so it must be done very carefully. It can work though, and we can utilise supplements for best effect based on your needs. Reducing meat however, will have a big impact if 6 billion people all cut down our meat consumption together so this is a very important decision that consumers can make. In New Zealand agriculture is our second biggest emitter. Cutting our reliance on fossil fuels at the same time, which in New Zealand is mostly through our transport sector, is however still the single most important thing you can do, as is planting as many trees as you can that belong on the land (i.e. native).

If we all act together and pressure our goverments with our vote and well calculated protest, we can also pressure big business with our consumer decisions. Perhaps we can turn this around for the sake of our children and grandchildren?


Simone Reddington is the founder of the Apothecary, a Medical Herbalist and thinker. She holds a degree in Psychology and is a professional member of the New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists.