Updated: Jul 13
In June 2021, Olympic climbing athlete Adam Ondra posted an unusual photo on his Instagram, posing with protein bars made from crickets:
He wrote: "Everything is full of proteins and more sustainable. You don't even see or taste the crickets; everything tastes perfect. In short, Maximal nutrition, minimal harm."
Adam Ondra is not the only elite climber who has used his platform to talk about environmentally sustainable diets. Other prominent (and vocal) vegetarian/vegan climbers include Olympic athlete Kyra Condie, the infamous free solo climber Alex Honnold, elite American climber Ashima Shiraishi, and YouTuber Mani the Monkey.
As climbers, we sometimes feel like we need to make trade-offs between a diet that helps us progress in the sport or a diet that doesn't wreck the planet. Of course, the most important to climbers is their protein intake and their consumption of animal products (as the most readily available and consumed forms of protein). However, the elite climbers mentioned above show that this may not necessarily be the dilemma we make it out to be.
Let's explore the intersection of climbing, protein, our food systems, and climate change!
Why food matters, both to climbing and climate
As climbers and athletes, food matters to us. It provides the "fuel in the tank" that powers us through our climbing sessions, and it's central to our recovery process and to grow stronger. Climbing, in particular, is a sport where our strength-to-weight ratio affects our climbing performance, and this ratio is shaped (in large part) by our diet. So as climbers who want to feel great on the wall, it's essential to pay attention to our diet.
What we eat also matters to the planet. The relationship between our food systems and the climate crisis is enormously complex, but let's try breaking it down.
Commonly, in discussions about the causes of the climate crisis, the focus tends to be on the use of fossil fuels.
But our global food system is also a key contributor. According to the article "Environmental Impacts of Food by Our World in Data, food accounts for over a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Our World in Data breaks these "food emissions" down further into four ways:
Livestock & fisheries: 31% of food emissions come from the on-farm 'production' emissions of animal agriculture, such as methane from cattle's digestion, emissions from manure management, pasture management, and fuel use from fisheries.
Crop production: 21% of food emissions come from the production of crops for human consumption, and 6% of food emissions come from animal feed production.
Land use: 24% of food emissions come from the way we use agricultural land, of which two-thirds is used for livestock; whether by deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, soil disturbance, or other actions, converted lands turn from carbon sinks into carbon emitters.
Supply chain emissions: The way we process, package, transport, and sell food accounts collectively for 18% of food emissions.
The total emissions related to animal protein production will make up more than half of all of the emissions of what we eat. This very brief overview also only begins to cover the climate impacts of our food systems. Other harmful environmental effects that our modern industrial, agricultural methods can have include waste runoff, eutrophication and monocropping, which affect the quality of water we drink, the air we breathe, the future viability of agriculture and the balance of the ecosystems we depend on.
Protein, protein, protein
Let's talk about protein. Perhaps more than any other element in the food pyramid, protein is an important (and contentious) topic of discussion among climbers and athletes; what kinds of proteins should we eat? How much? And how frequently? Suppose we seek to optimize our diets for our training. In that case, this is one of the critical macronutrients climbers often focus on. Many of us rely on animal-derived protein sources to meet our daily dietary requirements. As we have seen, this has a significant impact on our environmental footprint.
Protein, in particular, is a matter of concern for our food systems. This is because animal-based foods require disproportionately more resources than plan