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A Simple Fix for Restaurants and Diners to Help Curb Climate Change

The co-founder of Zero Foodprint on how just a one percent fee added to every restaurant bill can fund carbon farming projects worldwide

Man wearing t-shirt that says “Keep Calm and Compost” holds up a sign that says “Unfu%k the Planet” standing in the middle of the street.
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

According to Anthony Myint, there’s an obvious fix for solving climate change: “Pay 1 percent.” Adding 1 percent to every restaurant bill, he argues, would send money up the food chain to farmers, who could use it to invest in carbon farming.

Myint calls this consumer-funded model “table to farm.” As cofounder (along with Chris Ying and Peter Freed) of the nonprofit Zero Foodprint, which has worked since 2015 to reduce and offset the carbon footprint of restaurants, Myint and his organization work with restaurants to assess their contributions to climate change. It then leads the charge in asking consumers to pay an additional 1 percent upfront, with money going to those who invest in returning organic matter to barren soil or capture carbon from the atmosphere. “If we take a real honest look in the mirror, if you’re paying $100 for a Michelin-starred meal and it’s [raised to] $101, it doesn’t matter. If you’re paying $10 for a sandwich and it’s $10.10, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “No one can tell me with a straight face that’s impossible.” And it’s much easier to do than asking consumers to avoid eating meat or always buy local or break up agribusiness.

As environmental front man, Myint avoids soliloquizing about the poor state of the planet, instead arguing for people to fund actionable solutions. As Eater looks ahead to a better future for restaurants — one that adequately addresses how what we eat fuels climate change — Myint lays out a roadmap for how to get there.

Eater: What will 2025 look like for the food system and restaurants?

Anthony Myint: In 2014, the first renewable energy program began in Marin, California, where a whole city transitioned to renewable energy by citizens improving the grid. That’s a pretty short time ago, yet this is a systemic-change framework that everybody knows: I’ll pay a few dollars more on my utilities bill; I’m not actually putting a solar panel on my own roof, I’m paying into a process that will change the energy grid for everyone’s benefit. Anyone can opt out, check a box on their utilities bill. But it’s a new normal in the energy sector for regions trying to make the change, they create a new normal through collective action. That would never, ever happen if you were asking me to climb on the roof, put up the solar panels, take out a loan, negotiate with my landlord, connect with the energy grid, and all this shit.

Science in the past few years has established that 8 billion acres of farmland and grassland can be a major primary climate solution. Each acre can take in many tons of carbon, maybe even 50 or 100 tons of carbon. A lot of times that’s carbon that used to be in that soil before we plowed it up, killed it, and poured chemicals on it. We may not be able to rewild everything because we need to produce food, and there’s real estate and capitalism [to consider]. But we can completely reinvigorate the soil and put all that life back in, in a very short time, if we start adopting policies for systemic change.

What we’re arguing for is a table-to-farm movement along the same lines as renewable energy. Thinking, “Hey Chez Panisse, you’re doing great work. Let’s hope McDonald’s sees what you’re doing and decides to switch” — that’s not really realistic. Even if McDonald’s really wants to, it’s a whole different business model. They can’t go to the farmers market every day. It’s not even plausible.

What’s totally plausible is, send 1 cent from each burger, send 2 cents from each burger [to offset emissions]. Instead of a model that hopes people buy more $15 grass-fed burgers and then things start improving, our model is: The cows are out there on the land for a year before they go to the feedlot. That rancher is part of a big Cargill beef system. Cargill produces 7 billion pounds of beef per year. What will actually change [the system] is if McDonald’s takes 1 cent from each burger and pays that rancher at Cargill to implement carbon farming. That rancher would otherwise never have $200,000 to apply a bunch of compost or manage the way the cattle graze, because they’re just selling into a commodity market. That’s the same challenge as that solar panels thing on the roof.

At Zero Foodprint we’ve worked with restaurants over the years to go carbon-neutral and in every case, [applying 1 percent of sales] was more than enough to go carbon-neutral. Globally, 1 percent of GDP would have society on track to solve climate change and lower global temperatures. That’s all it takes, sending 1 percent instead of 0.00 percent ever.

How far toward the goal of carbon capture will we be in five years?

It’s hard to say because if you asked a renewable-energy person in 2015 where will we be in 2020, I don’t know if even an optimistic one would have said, “By 2020, 100 cities will be on their way toward renewable energy.” It really depends on individual progressive policy makers in a region. We’re working on those regional policy-level shifts in a few different counties and cities. Because a lot of what I’m talking about with soil carbon is brand-new to science, it takes the cultural capital of all of the cool kids and all the cool chefs and beloved restaurants doing it.

In some of the counties we’re working with — Sonoma County in California, for example, has had drought, wildfire, floods year after year; Boulder County in Colorado is very much focused on collective economic action to address climate change through natural and local solutions — regional leadership is all for it. It’s just a matter of how to get the board of supervisors from districts one through four to want to do it, how to get the city mayors to want to do it. Once the first one or two regions start doing it, then I hope it just becomes a no-brainer.

That’s what we’ve seen at Mission Chinese. We had a surcharge on the check going toward carbon farming for the last year and half. In that whole time — pre-COVID — two parties opted out. We were able to collect $45,000. I think we’re at a moment where people are more interested in collective action to make public benefit than before.

How will awareness of this issue spread over the next five years, especially into less-progressive areas of the U.S.?

Maybe not in regard to climate. But healthy soil is 100 percent bipartisan. There was an op-ed in the New York Times where [an Iowa farmer argued] to the government, pay us to take carbon out of the atmosphere with a few cents per meal. It’s part of Biden’s climate policy. It started to hit the Democratic nominee debates. But it’s so new people don’t even understand it.

Overall there’s a paralysis in regard to climate. Everybody is viewing it in terms of doing less harm: “I’ll bike to work instead of drive, I won’t take a flight, I won’t eat a burger, and I’ll be doing my part.” It’s true that matters. But in terms of the food system, that just delays the inevitable. It’s harm reduction. The science is showing the opportunity presented by restoration of soil is almost 10 times the opportunity of “stop wasting food, don’t eat meat.” The opportunity of restoration is so much larger. People need to shift the thinking toward funding solutions.

Coming out of COVID-19, do you think there will be a culture shift on collective action that benefits this effort?

I hope so. I’m biased obviously because I’m in the restaurant industry, but society misses restaurants. We see the importance of them. It’s not just a business that’s a transaction. There’s people and a story and a gathering place. I hope that people view their spending at restaurants in a way that allows them to embrace the 1 percent that we’re pushing for. I hope people go out of their way to support those restaurants in the way they’re going out of their way to support restaurants right now.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.