“How do you define healthy soil?” Anthony Myint challenges. The chef, consultant and activist catches me off guard at 7am, pre-coffee and post Basque Culinary World Prize celebrations, on the call from San Francisco.
It quickly becomes clear that this is the question that gets the US chef up in the morning and urging others to "wake up" to healthy soil farming techniques is his driving force. Myint knows his stuff inside out when it comes to food production and climate change, quite literally from the ground up, and he wants other chefs to become informed activists too.
Less than 24 hours after the chef was announced winner of the prize for "transforming society through gastronomy" he’s living up to the merits of his new title. He’s straight back to business and using his new profile to leverage even greater action from his peers in his battle against climate change; “our work is trying to build a global movement, led by great chefs and restaurants to incentivize healthy soil."
He’s already taken the spotlight to enlist the some of the best chefs in the world heading up the Basque Jury, including Dominique Crenn, Joan Roca and Massimo Bottura, who were also gathered in his hometown for the Sustainable Thinking Symposium this week.
For Anthony the wakeup call came seven years ago, with the arrival of his first child with his wife and business partner Karen Leibowitz. Driven by fatherhood the chef from Mission Chinese restaurant started Perennial Farming Initiative and Zero Foodprint. An activist chef on a mission to mobilize the restaurant industry as part of the solution to global warming and create a global movement in combatting climate change from the ground up. “There are just about zero chefs working on it” he highlights.
He’s cut back to two days a week in the restaurant, and the rest of the time, he’s a man on a climate change mission, highlighting the plight of soil, and it all begins with ingredients.
"HOW AN INGREDIENT IS PRODUCED MATTERS MUCH MORE THAN WHAT THE INGREDIENT IS"
Mission Chinese is carbon neutral, and has been now for four years. “Our first step was to conduct a life cycle assessment. We discovered that ingredients were 78% of our carbon emissions at Mission Chinese. Every ingredient has the potential to be produced in a good way or a bad way, and it’s something as a chef I didn’t know about until 5 to 10 years ago.”
How an ingredient is produced matters much more than what the ingredient is, just 1% of restaurants source well, he explains.
Beef farming serves as the perfect example. Instead of demonising the industry and turning to fake meat alternatives there is still a way an environmentally sound way to produce meat endorsed by academic studies.
"Case in point being beef raised on a feedlot is bad for the environment and beef raised through carbon ranching is tremendously and world savingly good for the environment. (by so much that it is by far the number one climate solution whether or not anyone eats the beef)."
"So beef is not the problem and fake meat is not the solution. Mismanagement of grazing and failure to return the nutrients from compost back into soil is the problem. This is just a single ingredient example."
“GOOD FARMING STARTS WITH THE SOIL”
So, if good healthy soil is the solution to climate change, is organic agriculture the solution? It's not as simple as that Anthony informs me. "If we buy organic there’s not enough production available worldwide. Even a category as pervasive as "Organic" only represents 2% of farmland. Since carbon farming is a major climate solution, if we want real change, we should pay for the transition using restaurants as the pathway.”
"We should pay for the transition"
By adding a surcharge in restaurants and a tax that feeds directly back into farming and the soil, this is how change will happen. From September last year Mission Chinese implemented a 3% surcharge on each diner’s cheque. In that time, they’ve served some 25,000 customers, and had just 25 customer enquiries and one customer who opted out of the surcharge. An indication, he suggests that proves that customers are willing to foot the bill for a healthier future. Zero Foodprint are a global organisation and they've already partnered with some big name restaurants like Noma and Amass in Copenhagen.
WHAT ACTION CAN CHEFS TAKE ON A LOCAL RESTAURANT LEVEL?
“Our work is simply to communicate this to chefs and diners, whether it's the big names with Michelin stars or literally just the neighbourhood sandwich shop” So, what does he advise a medium neighbourhood restaurant to do, aside from the “obvious” measures like recycling?
1. Compost – if you can, make your own compost or if you have a public compost service – use it.
2. Find out how your ingredients are produced – this is a big one for chefs as there’s not necessarily the understanding.
3. Ask your farmers for the soil or organic matter where your ingredient are grown. Send it to a lab and get it tested and find out how healthy the soil is. The more organic matter in the soil is indicative of better flavour in the produce.
CLIMATE CHANGE ACTIVISM ON A STATE LEVEL
Myint will use the 100,000 award Basque Culinary Award prize money to broaden his climate change movement and help finance a forthcoming state-wide program; “Restore California Renewable Restaurant Program” in collaboration with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Air Resources Board.
In the fall, restaurants across California will add an optional 1% surcharge to diner’s bills in a project “to allow more carbon farm plans to be implemented across more acres and to create a restaurant facing soil carbon market.”
Healthy soil, I learn, is a living thing. Let’s hope with passionate chef activists like Anthony Myint championing it, it has a long and healthy future.