Renowned chef, author, and food consultant, whose accolades, among many, include a James Beard Award, Anthony Myint is more than your typical restaurateur. Paving the way by connecting regenerative agriculture to the consumer dining experience, Myint proves to be an activist in an apron, successfully recreating the medium through which we can all mitigate climate change: by eating. With many of us far removed from where our food comes from and the practices with which it is grown, Myint demonstrates through one of his latest roles as Director of Partnerships at Zero Foodprint, that climate solutions are within each of our reach. Regenerative Travel recently caught up with Myint about his journey, the work he is currently undertaking, and what he is hopeful for in the coming years.
How did you get interested in food and the restaurant arena? Was this space something you knew you always wanted to delve into?
We began as a pop-up before that was even a term(!) and we’ve been interested in the ability for food to build community and make people think differently. But since we became parents Karen [Leibowitz] and I have really become excited about the opportunity for food–changing the way we grow food–to be a primary climate solution.
It’s not easy for many to directly envision how our eating and dining habits are linked to climate change. Much of your work over the years has focused exactly on that: bringing to fruition the interconnectedness between the two and how we can help aid in solving the latter. Was there an ah-ha moment early on in which you realized that link?
The a-ha moment was when we visited a carbon ranching pilot in 2015. As we arrived, scientists from the United Nations were leaving and we learned about how healthy soil and sustainable farming and ranching can take tons of carbon out of the atmosphere and transform it into beneficial soil microbiology. To some extent, I think we are trained to understand this principle in re: deforestation (planting trees takes carbon out of the atmosphere while cutting down trees releases that carbon as the biomass decays and oxidizes). But modern society is so disconnected from growing food that, even chefs don’t totally understand this–that the carbon is either in the atmosphere or in the soil, and if you systematically plow and apply chemicals, you deplete the soil of life and release it all into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, that’s now “conventional” on billions of acres. But what’s amazing is that we can undo all the damage from decades of industrial farming with one decade of regenerative agriculture.
Your involvement as Co-Founder of Mission Chinese Food (MCF) and Co-Founder of Zero Foodprint, which won a James Beard Award in 2020, are both steeped in philanthropic and regenerative efforts. Can you tell us about the journey and these practices, including your work with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank?
Our original pop-up, and MCF have always had a charitable component. We’ve helped raise over 1.5 million meals for those in need through the SF and Marin Food Bank and other local food pantries. Zero Foodprint won the 2020 James Beard Award for Humanitarian of the Year for our work on scaling regenerative agriculture, in collaboration with California State Agencies. Many great chefs and restaurants give back, but we shifted our focus from giving back to trying to close the loop and establish a renewable food economy in which a few cents per meal is helping farmers implement sustainable practices and turning the whole food system into part of the climate solution.
One of the many projects you’re involved in, in this case as their Director of Partnerships, is Zero Foodprint (ZFP). Can you explain your role and what ultimately inspired you to partner with Karen Leibowitz on this nonprofit?
ZFP is my focus now and ironically, I’ve gone from the kitchen and avoiding conversations with people, to someone who will take over the meeting and try to steer it toward climate solutions on local farms and ranches. We’re really inspired by the new science around soil carbon and the global opportunity for how change in the food system can help ultimately lower global temperatures.
It is no secret COVID-19 has ravaged the restaurant industry. How are Mission Chinese Food and Zero Foodprint navigating the current landscape? Have you found your typical day to day altered as ZFP establishments around the world grapple with ever-changing restrictions, while still simultaneously upholding ZFP standards?
The Manhattan Mission Chinese has closed, but the San Francisco Mission Chinese is getting by during these turbulent times, thanks to a meal procurement program for seniors. We’re also pretty takeout friendly and so, while we’re not making money, we’re not falling too far in debt. ZFP continues to sign up new members, in part because I think a growing number of restaurateurs want to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Our program has evolved a bit in conjunction with regional governments, so it’s not really a purity contest–how well can you source, how much can you conserve internally–but more of a fundraising engine to fight climate change on local farms and ranches. Participating restaurants add a 1% fee and customers can always opt-out. ZFP directs the money to worthwhile carbon farming projects and we’ve awarded $325k to 18 projects in California for things like planting cover crops, applying compost, planting trees, etc. The reality is that the vast majority of diners and citizens want to take climate action, and ZFP makes it possible in a way that also makes local food systems more resilient and prosperous.
What has been the most unexpected difficulty to overcome, and what has been the most uplifting in your journey?
Our MO is pretty much to learn by doing and not be afraid of getting in over our heads and, for a little while there during the previous administration, things were looking pretty pre-apocalyptic, but now we’ve got an administration that is elevating carbon farming to the center of a nationwide climate and job creation strategy. I think maybe we just started working on regenerative agriculture a few years too early.
For those who live far from Zero Foodprint establishments, or perhaps prefer to cook at home during this time, what advice would you give to someone striving to lessen their carbon footprint, manage their food waste, and make a measurable difference in their climate behavior?
We have begun crowdfunding, so citizens can always support carbon farming through ZFP here. Any business or philanthropist can support carbon farming across the U.S. and potentially even in their own supply chain or region. Get in touch! We’ve got a lot underway behind the scenes, including some international expansion.
Despite the fact that the world is projected, according to the United Nations, to deplete its total sum of topsoil in 60 years, how do you continually remain positive and believe we can change the current trajectory we are on?
While we’re definitely on a bad trajectory, the regenerative agriculture movement has come a long way in the past few years and the projected benefits keep accelerating. Practices like compost application are starting to be viewed as having more of an inoculant effect, jump starting a new, positive biological equilibrium. It took a few decades for extractive capitalism to inadvertently degrade all the farmland, but nature is powerful enough that if we start farming biologically instead of chemically, we can reverse all of the damage in one decade. Imagine for example, how quickly everything would change if developed nations all composted? That alone would immediately put regenerative/organic/sustainable farming on even footing with extractive-industrial farming. Nevermind the fact that we provide billions in subsidies for unhealthy soil, instead of for healthy soil. In other words, things are pretty dire, but there’s so much potential to reverse all of the harm.
Also, there’s a lot of optimistic climate solutions-oriented work going on. According to Drawdown.org, society can solve the climate crisis and lower global temperatures, and the cost is a mere 1% of GDP (every year until 2050, but still!). If it was going to take a 50% increase in prices, I’d be feeling pretty gloomy. But it’s just 1%! So it’s just a matter of how quickly we can come together and mobilize.
In light of (or despite) the pandemic, what trends do you see, if any, emerging in regenerative farming/regenerative restaurant approaches?
I think regenerative agriculture will continue to become a popular focus. But I also hope that there’s a shift toward a broader renewable food economy in which a few cents per meal or purchase–every meal or every purchase–goes toward systematically helping farmers implement sustainable practices.
What’s on the horizon for you in the next year? In the next five?
We’re going to keep expanding Zero Foodprint and making it possible for citizens, businesses and environmentalists to become part of the climate solution by improving local food systems.