Stories / Opinion, Impact

How We Can Solve Climate Change from the Ground Up

Karen Leibowitz

April 29, 2021

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Karen Leibowitz leaning on her hand in a black t-shift photo by Alanna Hale
Photo: Alanna Hale

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.

Below, Karen Leibowitz, executive director of 2020 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Zero Foodprint, explains how diners and restaurants can play a key role in tackling climate change. Real progress, Leibowitz shares, comes from collective action, and the millions of tiny acts that coalesce into powerful advances.

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A few years ago, I opened a super-sustainable restaurant with my husband, Anthony Myint. We’d worked together before—on projects like Mission Chinese Food—but The Perennial was the restaurant that we sank all our hopes and savings into. In some ways, the idea for this restaurant grew out of the climate anxiety that had been building in us ever since our daughter was born. We saw The Perennial as a way to commit ourselves to sustainability for her sake, and maybe even worry a little less about her future in a world already being transformed by climate change.

To be honest, some of the sustainability efforts worked out better than others: energy costs were low, but the off-site aquaponic greenhouse was a major financial drain, and sometimes we wandered into Portlandia territory with all of the messaging we were doing tableside. But the most important thing The Perennial did to connect the dots between food and climate change was showcase ingredients from farms at the cutting edge of the regenerative agriculture movement.

Regenerative agriculture—also called carbon farming—is a way of growing food while also dealing with climate change. Practices like spreading compost on degraded soil or planting cover crops can actually pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon in the soil. The result is healthy soil that’s more nutritious, more resilient to extreme weather, and more profitable for farmers.

These days, regenerative agriculture is having a bit of a moment. The Biden administration has referred to it as the lynchpin of its climate strategy, corporations are committing to regenerative sourcing, and financial markets are emerging to buy and sell soil carbon credits. It’s exciting to see people embracing the regenerative label, because it’s the most hopeful solution to climate change that I’ve seen.

As a food person, it makes me really proud to know that we can be part of saving the world. But we have to get a move on, because our current food system is a big part of the problem. Studies have shown that about a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from food, and 71 percent of that food-related impact happens as a byproduct of food production.

What does this have to do with restaurants? It turns out that the most important factor in a restaurant’s carbon footprint isn’t energy, or packaging, or food waste. It’s actually the ingredients that matter most, as we learned when our nonprofit, Zero Foodprint, did life cycle assessments on restaurants around the world. We found that ingredients contribute between two-thirds and three-quarters of the total impact.

One way for us to lower our carbon footprint, of course, would be to source regeneratively. That’s what we tried to do at The Perennial, but I’ll be honest with you: there’s just not that much regenerative produce available. So even if we convinced our diners that regenerative food is awesome, they couldn’t necessarily go out and find it for themselves, even where we’re located in the Bay Area. Regenerative is just a tiny (but growing) sliver of the food economy, and economic incentives aren’t aligned to create the massive shift toward regenerative farming needed to make a dent in the climate crisis. After all, just 1 percent of U.S. farmland is organic, even after 50 years of activism and price premiums for organic produce.

So how can we increase the supply of regenerative foods and transform our food system from a source of emissions into a massive carbon sink? As Americans, we tend to try shopping our way to solutions. Last December, researchers at Yale found that 36 percent of Americans have rewarded companies taking steps to reduce global warming by buying their products. That’s great, but as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and the past few years of devastating climate catastrophes, we need to start thinking more deeply about systemic change.

It’s not enough for each of us to make the best choice we can and hope that the farmers respond to consumer demand for sustainable produce. Our so-called “conventional” system traps small and BIPOC farmers, in particular, in a cycle of debt to pay for chemical inputs and machinery, leaving more than half of American farmers operating at a loss. If we really want to build back better, we need consumers to invest in sustainable agriculture in a way that focuses on transitioning acres. That’s why Zero Foodprint started working to mobilize the food world in support of regenerative agriculture—without pushing the cost onto restaurants.

Here’s how it works: Zero Foodprint members add 1 percent to their prices for regenerative agriculture, and those micro-donations fund our grants for farmers to buy compost, plant windbreaks, and implement other regenerative projects. It’s just a few cents from each consumer and nothing from the member business (unless they want to undergo a life-cycle assessment, which we can also help with).

Since launching our grant program last year, the Zero Foodprint community has already pulled about 7,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—that’s like 17 million miles in the average car—from the atmosphere, and we’re growing all the time. We welcome all kinds of businesses, from sandwich shops to composters to corporations, and we would love to hear from you.

As someone who tried to go all-in by running a 100 percent sustainable restaurant, I can tell you what we really need is for more of us to go 1 percent in on carbon farming. None of us can solve this crisis on our own, but if we channel our energies into collective action, we really can overcome climate change, and we’ll eat well doing it.

Watch our recent webinar celebrating Earth Day with Karen Leibowitz and other Zero Foodprint chefs and farmers.

Learn more about Zero Foodprint, the James Beard Foundation 2020 Humanitarian of the Year.

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Karen Leibowitz is a writer, cookbook author, and executive director of Zero Foodprint, and holds a PhD from the UC Berkeley. Learn more at zerofoodprint.org.