It seems a tall order to ask restaurants that already suffer from pandemic wipeouts and carpaccio-thin margins to increase their prices, or patrons to pay more in a country where 13.8 percent are food insecure. Myint, the son of Chinese immigrants, is no stranger to the harsh economics. He started as a line cook in San Francisco and operated several food trucks before opening his first restaurant with his wife.
But the experience of the restaurants and businesses who participate in the Zero Foodprint initiative attests to enthusiastic patrons and the opportunity to educate a broader base about the impact of carbon farming. Some customers will even tell the businesses to round up when they learn about the purpose behind the donation.
“At this point in the climate crisis, with soil depletion and extreme weather, we need ways for collective action to change land management,” Myint says. “Of course, you could go to the farmers market and at least not eat commercially produced feedlot beef, but concurrently, we can start changing how food is produced.”
Myint is convinced that wealthy people paying a premium for organic food is not a working strategy. “After 50 years, less than one percent of the 911 million acres of farmland in the US is organic!” he nearly shouts. “The price premium model has not accelerated that kind of transition to organic farming.”
Instead, Myint is working with the Natural Resources Defense Council, drafting model ordinances that cities or counties can pass to implement. California’s Sonoma County is the first county to list Zero Foodprint in its climate action plan. At the other end of the state, San Diego is committed to passing a Regional Decarbonization Framework, “a collaborative effort to lower the region’s carbon footprint,” including carbon farming.
Myint already got Governor Gavin Newsom on board with Restore California, the state’s initiative to become carbon-neutral by 2045 that explicitly lists carbon sequestration as one of its strategies. Elsewhere, Boulder County in Colorado recently launched a similar program in cooperation with Zero Foodprint, Restore Colorado.
Myint eventually envisions a state-wide funding tool: “Like the dollar on the energy bill, you could be billed a dollar on the trash bill that goes directly to these projects,” he says. “In states like Oregon or California, when you buy a six-pack of beer, five cents go toward recycling. Similarly, at this point in the climate crisis, we need a couple of cents per purchase to go towards healthy soil.”
Of course, Myint is aware that significant federal subsidies fund “unhealthy soil, extractive, primarily chemical-based farming” and he hopes the funds will eventually be there to offramp farmers from big ag to “farming with nature.” Some USDA programs already fund this kind of conservation work, but, Myint explains, “historically, they are radically oversubscribed. In 2021, the USDA had to turn down over 100,000 farmers who applied for conservation practice funding.” He also notes that these programs come with cumbersome bureaucratic processes.
He likens the shift he hopes to see to the solar energy boom: “In California, these kinds of incentives helped shift renewable energy to 36 percent. Other factors contributed to that, but 36 percent is way better than one percent organic farming after 50 years. So it really speaks to the potential of that kind of new normal to be part of the solution.”
You could say Myint is trying to crowdfund climate-smart agriculture, a few pennies at a time. He calls it a “no-brainer, a win-win-win.”