Updated: Jul 13, 2022
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 plant-based foods to produce the same amount of protein.
Consider the chart below, taken from World Resources Institute research on sustainable diets, which compares the relative resource intensities (land use, freshwater consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions) of different animal- and plant-based foods per ton of protein consumed.
Beef is the most resource-intensive protein source, followed by dairy, poultry, pork, eggs, and farmed fish.
As the global population increases and the demand for meat rises, this will put tremendous (and unsustainable) pressure on our food systems and planet, with catastrophic results.
As we've seen in a previous Boulder Planet x Climate Conversations article, we, as climbers, have a vested interest in protecting the environment and climate because our sport stands to be impacted by climate change. So, what actions could we take when it comes to promoting sustainability within our food systems?
The article from Our World in Data suggests that if we want to reduce the carbon footprint of our diets, it matters more what we eat, not whether our food is local. In other words, it would be far more impactful to remove beef entirely from our diets than only to eat locally produced foods. (This is relieving news in a country like Singapore, where 90% of our food is imported.)
So at the individual level, the most significant way we play into our food system (and can create change within it!) is through our diets, namely reducing the number of animal products we consume -- and encouraging as many others as we can to do the same. So, for example, for each day of the week that we go meatless, we could decrease our impact from meat consumption by 15%.
There are many resources online for anyone looking to reduce their consumption of animal products (apps like abillionveg and HappyCow, and the Green Monday Movement); we won't go into depth on that here. We also won't dare to venture into the fiery debate about what an optimal climber's diet and protein intake ought to be! But here are a few of the possibilities of what the future might look like, vis-a-vis more sustainable protein sources.
There are the usual avenues for anyone looking to incorporate more plant-based proteins into their diets, like soy, peas, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, high-protein veggies like broccoli. But there is also a fast-growing area of innovation called "alternative protein", the umbrella term used to describe all proteins that do not come from traditional animal sources.
Especially in the past few years, there has been an explosion in the popularity of plant-based meat alternatives, such as the examples of plant-based protein brands of Impossible, Beyond, Quorn, Karana, OmniMeat, and Tindle. Meat alternatives are becoming tastier, texturally more similar, adapted to local cuisine, and in some cases even healthier than meat; this trend is predicted to increase massively as consumer demand grows for more sustainable food options.
Another burgeoning area of innovation is "clean meat", aka "cell-cultured" or "cell-based" meat. The research hasn't yet found a consensus. Still, according to the Good Food Institute, cultivated meat would use significantly less energy, land, and water and emit substantially less GHG than existing animal agricultural practices. Interestingly, Singapore was the first (and currently the only) country in the world to approve of the sale of cultivated meat! It's still significantly more expensive than meat, but this could quickly change.
And as we saw in the case of Adam Ondra, we also see a rise in insect-based proteins on the market. The thought of eating crickets might churn some stomachs, but perhaps we will see this form of protein become more mainstream in the future.
It may not be possible to altogether remove meat from one's diet for various personal, cultural, religious, geographic, economic, or other reasons. However, any step in our diets to reduce our intake of animal products is an essential step towards reducing emissions.
As Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC's working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, said, "We don't want to tell people what to eat, but it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect." (source)
It's also worth questioning how much protein we need as climbers. As Eric Horst argued in Training for Climbing, climbing is a sport that is equally about physical strength, technique, and mental fortitude. The implication is that if climbing performance were all we cared about, we wouldn't necessarily need crazy amounts of muscle; our protein intake requirements are arguably lower than for athletes of other sports. Perhaps that puts us, as climbers, in a unique position to have more sustainable diets than other athletes!
Alex Honnold certainly seems to think the trend of excessive protein consumption is overhyped: "So far, I've noticed no difference at all in my climbing, but I feel a bit healthier overall. Though that's only because I'm eating more fruits and vegetables. I think the whole protein thing is overhyped. Most Americans eat far more than we need." (source)
We hope this article has opened your eyes to the intersection of climbing with the climate crisis and our food systems and given you some ideas on how to reduce our impacts.
This article is written by Climate Conversations in collaboration with Boulder Planet. Climate Conversations is a nonprofit organization that facilitates meaningful conversations with the people we care about that inspire them to embrace our responsibility for our environment and our future.