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The chef who wants diners to fund regenerative ag

Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz

Anthony Myint, director of partnerships, and Karen Leibowitz, executive director, of Zero Foodprint. Courtesy of Zero Foodprint

"We have solutions that are bipartisan and cost the government $0."

That was the opening line of a message I received from award-winning chef Anthony Myint, who replied to my request for elevator pitches for president-elect Joe Biden. Myint went on to describe a scalable mechanism for capturing large amounts of carbon in agricultural soils that would, indeed, cost governments $0.

If this sounds too good to be true, consider what happened 20 years ago in a different economic sector. Solar and wind are cost-competitive means of producing electricity, but this wasn’t the case in the late 1990s. Back then, renewable energy advocates were trying to figure out how to scale technologies that were more expensive than fossil-fuel incumbents. 

Some state governments simply mandated the use of renewables, but in places without mandates, advocates had to get creative. Even in states with mandates, some utilities wanted to do more. One solution was to ask consumers to chip in. The thinking was that if enough people opted to pay a little extra on their electricity bill, the combined funds would be enough to swap out some coal and gas plants for wind turbines and photovoltaic panels.

The idea worked. In 2019, close to 8 million people in the United States voluntarily paid for electricity from renewable sources. This mechanism alone would not have driven the extraordinary growth of renewables witnessed over the past two decades, but it played an important role in kick-starting the renewables market, said Jenny Heeter, an expert on voluntary pricing at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

This brings us back to Myint, co-founder of a fantastic Chinese restaurant in San Francisco and director of partnerships at Zero Foodprint, the organization behind his pitch to the president-elect. Myint’s idea is to add a 1 percent charge to restaurant bills — perhaps someday to every bill in every restaurant — and $1 per month to waste hauling charges. The money would be used to help farmers implement regenerative agriculture techniques that boost soil fertility and store carbon. 

We’re trying to unlock the ability of citizens and consumers to take climate action.

Right now, Myint and colleagues are signing up restaurants one-by-one. Although progress has been slowed by the pandemic, around 40 restaurants in California and beyond are funding carbon farming, including big names such as Noma and Chez Panisse. Farmers apply to Zero Foodprint for a share of the proceeds; the proposals that sequester the most carbon for every dollar are selected for funding. "We’re trying to unlock the ability of citizens and consumers to take climate action," Myint told me.

To take it to the next level, he’s asking regional or state governments to create legislation that would make the charge a default on all restaurant bills. Diners will be able to opt out, but data on other funding schemes that use opt-in as the default show that few are likely to do so. For policy-makers that want to establish a renewable food economy, Zero Foodprint can provide model legislation that they can use as a starting point. 

There’s another similarity here with renewables. I said that voluntary charges alone would not have driven renewable growth: It took a portfolio of initiatives, including state mandates and tax credits. It’s exciting to see something similar happening in regenerative ag. Companies are paying farmers to implement regenerative practices in return for carbon offsets generated — either direct, as in the case of Cargill and Bayer, or via a marketplace, such as those offered by Nori or Indigo Ag. Producers also use regenerative branding to justify premium prices. And investors are linking interest rates to carbon storage and soil health

The challenge of reforming the way we manage the almost 1 billion acres of U.S. farmland can seem overwhelming, but we’re seeing the emergence of a suite of solutions that might be up to the job. One critical next step will be support, or lack of it, from the incoming administration.

This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.

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