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The goals, the bibs, the balls, the boot room and the club’s vegetable garden

25 Jan 2024   ·   

Marty McFly jumps back 30 years and is amazed by his future. His home kitchen is the dream of the entire food industry in the 1980s. On-demand and instant consumption of all kinds of food. A cookie-sized pizza that in just 10 seconds transforms into a family pizza and a spoiled new generation McFly who insists to the voice assistant in his kitchen that he wants fruit. From the ceiling of the room a trapdoor opens and a fresh vine descends offering fresh bunches of grapes grown on site. Visionary or not, the screenwriters of ‘Back to the Future’, Robert Zemenkis and Bob Gale, hit upon the key to planetary sustainability in 1985: self-cultivation. 

Almost 30% of greenhouse gases (GHG) come from the transport needed for a food industry without limits as imagined by the society of the 1980s. A production model “that generates 32% of global land acidification and 78% of eutrophication from agricultural emissions, all of which are drivers of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss”, according to an article signed by several experts from the UEFA Nutrition Council.

Football, a sport in which the diet of its players requires twice as much protein as the rest of the non-sporting population, has taken the reins for the world’s most popular sport to lead a new lifestyle based on the consumption of local food products and much more plant-based protein.

“We are in contact with a number of clubs and sports organisations around the world, who are growing their own food/products and increasing experiences for players to understand the food chain from crop to plate,” explains James Collins, one of 31 experts on UEFA’s committee for the study of nutrition in the elite. He is a nutritionist who has worked with Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC and the English Football Association. A representation of this panel of experts will be present at the next Sports Tomorrow Congress of the Barça Innovation Hub to be held on 26 February in Barcelona.

While at first glance football may appear to be a minor player in the fight against climate change, its potential as a social change actor can be key to at least seven of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “The football community represents approximately 265 million people who play the sport. In terms of fans, approximately 1.5 billion people watched the 2022 World Cup final. Any change by this community to consume less animal-based food can have a positive impact on the environment,” add UEFA’s nutrition experts.

Red meat is in the spotlight in the new sports nutrition claims for the health of the planet. “Beef (from a beef herd) requires 23 times more land and causes nine times more GHGs per 100 g of protein compared to poultry,” concludes the study ‘Reducing the environmental impacts of food through producers and consumers‘ (J. Poore, T. Nemecek, Science). The recommendation of the UEFA experts is to “Encourage at least 1/3 of protein intake from plant sources (cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds) and/or combine protein foods of plant and animal (plant) origin to ensure quality and bioavailability”.

The effectiveness of plant proteins in the diet of athletes, who, as mentioned above, require twice as much protein in their diet as non-athletes, has been repeatedly studied over the last decade. Replacing meat with nuts such as peanuts, cashews, textured soya, flaxseed or barley yeast is a common recommendation in studies. A clinical trial with athletes conducted in 2019 at the University of Sao Paulo showed that the muscle power needed was equally achievable with plant protein consumption as with animal protein. Collins adds that vegetarian diets “would reduce GHGs by approximately 30%, livestock land use by 50% and water consumption by 35%”.

UEFA’s nutrition experts warn in their studies that until now the main objective of diets has been to improve the performance of athletes. But it is time to win the planet’s battle against biodiversity degradation and global warming. For this reason, they call for the participation of clubs and federations in the implementation of sustainability policies that include the training of athletes, the aforementioned food production with local products in squads where the average is 60% of players from outside the city of the club, and the substitution of the origin of the necessary proteins.

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