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  • Jo Wills

Climate, Housing & Food

A couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar; ‘Climate Change & Health: Is food a major player?’ a science based presentation delivered by Emily Rushton (a health professional), and on behalf of Ora Taiao (New Zealand Climate and Health Council), check them out.

A couple of years ago Ora Taiao submitted a briefing paper to the then incoming Minister for Health highlighting the ‘Health Co‐benefits of Climate Action’ and showing examples of this under three headings: increase active transport (cycling, walking), improve housing (energy efficiency) and supporting a population shift to plant-based diets (vegetarian and vegan). The latter was the focus of this particular seminar.

I attended because the three topics in the title of this blog (Climate, Housing & Food) are constantly on my mind. Sustainability Options is focused in the housing space, we give free, independent sustainability advice to people about energy and improving the efficiency and performance of their home. We know a more efficient home can improve the occupant’s health and financial situation, as well as reduce resource use, which is better for the planet and future generations. We know we are in the right place, focusing on something really important. So housing is always on my mind.

On a personal level, I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years and have recently moved to being dairy free. It was the ‘next level’ shift I’d thinking about making for a long time, but like every meaningful decision, the timing had to be right. I am always thinking about food because I’m really interested in the relationship between food and energy and my own health.

Emily’s seminar was perfectly timed as a follow on from the Chasing Ice forum I attended last month, (a documentary about the melting glaciers followed by a panel discussion about climate change, see here for my blog about it). A few of us commented after that forum it was strange how food hadn’t been mentioned as both an issue and an opportunity for change, when it has such an incredibly high impact on our environment. Emily’s seminar provided a huge insight into this and I learnt a lot more about the connection to climate change, the third topic never far from my thoughts.

The following uses information from Emily’s presentation, which is based on science and backed up by references ( I have included the relevant slide # if you would like to take a look.

Globally, animal related agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (#19). Interestingly, this is higher than air travel, which sits around 14%. Land use is a major issue, one acre of land can yield 250 pounds of beef, or, 53,000 pounds of potatoes (#14). Thinking about it in another way, 1kg of beef equates to 100kms of driving with regards to emissions (#24). To give that some more local perspective, (2013) data available from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment showed Fonterra, New Zealand's largest company used 410,000 tonnes of coal to turn liquid milk into powder. Altogether the dairy industry burns 512,811 tonnes of coal. Utilising land and changing land use (i.e. from forestry) for animal agriculture has undeniable negative impacts to the environment. In New Zealand, agriculture contributes to 51% of our total emissions and then on top of that is the amount of water needed to sustain the industry (huge amounts). It was quite an eye opener, even as a dedicated vegetarian, to better understand the magnitude of the issue we are facing in NZ and globally due to animal agriculture.

But food waste in general is another massive contributor to emissions, and this includes plant based food, a study from 2011 shows NZ along with USA, Canada and Australia as having the most food waste per kg/per person – about 110kg (#23). Globally, 35% of emissions come from wasted food (#21). So emissions are generated from food through land use, feed stock, animal care, food production, food transportation and then after all of that, food waste. We are just wasting energy.

And, we haven’t even talked about health yet. Emily has a slide (#28) which says ‘Low carbon, plant-based diets reduce disease burden’. She went on to share research about meat, milk and haem iron (iron from meat) which showed very important results about increased mortality rates, diabetes, stroke, cancer and dementia to name a few (#29). This is clearly a very contentious issue, especially in NZ with diary being such a significant industry, although more studies and data is coming out supporting plant-based diets as being better for our health as well as the environment.

I was sent an article from the Huffington Post earlier this week, written by an America’s Heart Attack Prevention Doc and author of The Whole Heart Solution and Professor of Cardiology, Joel Kahn M.D. The article can be found here ( ‘Vegan medicine has arrived, is normative, and is a powerful tool to reverse many chronic conditions’ it says.

Here is one paragraph: ‘Just a few weeks ago a group of researchers from University of Oxford published an analysis of climate change from a variety of possible dietary changes. After looking at different options in farming and diet, they concluded that “transitioning toward more plant-based diets... could reduce global mortality by 6-10 percent, and food related greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70 percent compared with a reference scenario by 2050.” The authors went on to predict that this shift to vegan diets would provide economic benefits globally of $1-31 trillion U.S. dollars’

It sounds quite amazing, but by shifting our diets to being more plant-based it can have such a powerful and positive impact on our health and the planet. And, a positive change for you can also have a flow on positive effect for others. This sits well with me, and the principles of Sustainability Options, compassion, social justice, kaitiakitanga. Emily had some ‘clear, simple instructions’ (slide #33), aim to reduce meat intake by 60%. Taking things slowly and working out what’s best for you will help achieve long-term results. I strongly believe everyone’s diet is individual to them, and for me being vegetarian and dairy free is absolutely the right choice. I am really fit and active, and I know of other people, fit, muscular, strong, athletic people who are vegan as well. After finding out I was vegetarian, a friend of mine once said to me, ‘do you run? I didn’t think vegetarians could run.’ Haha! I could outrun him any day of the week.

The world is taking notice of plant-based diets, Emily showed a slide (#18) with recommendations made by health leaders in other countries to reduce meat intake. The Netherlands are suggesting meat only two times per week, and only once red meat. While America had an amazing outcome of reducing red meat per capita by 10% between 2007 and 2014 equating to four hundred million less animals consumed during that time. Four hundred million!

Many internationally renowned athletes have long since recognised the benefits of a plant based diet, Scott Jurek is an ultra-running super star, and features in one of my ‘life changing’ books ‘Born to Run’ In fact he has been awarded the title of ‘Hero of Running’, he’s won so many Ultra-Marathon titles there are too numerous to list. He’s vegan. Venus and Serena Williams turned vegan about four years ago, they seem to be doing ok. Check out this site for more vegan super stars (

So maybe there is something in it. If you are interested in finding out more about what a vegan diet might look like or just want to find more information take a look at this site It doesn’t have to be extreme, you might never become full time vegan, but reducing your meat and dairy intake enough to make a difference can be really easy, you might even enjoy it, and you'll definitely benefit from it.

Emily has kindly shared a You Tube clip of her delivering the seminar, also worth checking out.

#vegan #climatechange #vegetarian #health

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