Authored by Mikkela Blanton
Believe it or not, there is a solution to climate change–there is a way to get all of that carbon we’ve emitted out of the atmosphere. And it doesn’t involve fancy technology–you don’t have to buy diamonds made with sequestered CO2; you don’t have to fret over the construction of pipelines that can transport liquid CO2 before injecting it deep underground. You just need to have a meal. And it doesn’t even have to be a healthy or meat-free one.
At least, that’s according to Anthony Myint, Co-founder and Director of Partnerships of Zero Foodprint (ZFP).
Myint’s claim is based on the idea–one that’s gaining a lot of traction–that our soil can be our carbon storehouse: our most effective weapon against climate change. The first thing to understand is that soil is alive–there are more organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are stars in the sky. Soil is composed of organic matter–of which carbon is an essential ingredient. The process of sequestering carbon and storing it in the soil is primarily mediated by plants during photosynthesis. Root, or mycorrhizal, fungi is a key vehicle for moving carbon into the soil; according to soil scientist Christine Jones, plants that have mycorrhizal connections can move up to 15 percent more carbon for storage.
Unfortunately, much of our soil today is dead; its life has been exterminated by industrial farming practices that over-utilize pesticide and fertilizer applications, tilling, and mono-cropping. Regenerative agriculture seeks to improve soil health and soil organic matter through practices like planting diverse crops, including cover crops; applying manure, compost, or/and biochar; smart rotational grazing; and holistic management. The healthier the soil (more living things, more root systems), the better its capacity to sequester and store carbon. So much carbon, in fact, that healthy soil could sequester all of the carbon that the global transportation sector emits annually, if not more (some experts, such as those at the Rodale Institute and Project Drawdown, say that the number could be as high as 100 percent of all annual global carbon emissions).
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That’s all fine and good (actually, it’s pretty darn exciting!), but what does that have to do with going out to eat?
Zero Foodprint crowdfunds grants for farmers that help the producers switch to regenerative farming practices (it’s challenging to make the switch, financially and otherwise. Check out this other article I wrote on the topic.) When a consumer goes out to eat (or supports another ZFP business), they contribute one percent of their total bill to ZFP. That one percent is then distributed in the form of a grant to farmers, who partner with local experts to implement and verify carbon farming projects. The simple idea earned the project the James Beard Foundation 2020 Humanitarian of the Year award. And if you’re someone who likes to dine out, there’s more good news: the number of ZFP restaurants in Colorado is increasing, and Colorado farmers will directly benefit from ZFP grants.
To be clear, ZFP isn’t limited to the restaurant industry. “We’re very much hoping to broaden to all food businesses as more of a renewable food economy approach,” said Myint.
The idea for Zero Foodprint originated when Myint and Co-Founder and Executive Director Karen Leibowitz started thinking about ways to scale up climate action. As founders of several award-winning restaurants, including Mission Chinese Food, the pair sought out solutions that connected chefs, farmers, consumers, and the planet. Myint compared the ZFP idea to Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs) in California, which are accelerating the state’s clean energy transition by opting to purchase more carbon-free electricity than required. “We need that same system in food,” explained Myint, “because we need to change farmland.” He added that ZFP has paved a path for the “citizen to be part of the solution.”
Here in Colorado, ZFP has partnered with Mag Agriculture, which provides carbon farm planning and technical support to farmers. “Farmers benefit from peer-to-peer earned credibility,” explained Myint, referring to the choice to work with Mad Ag. “The community organizing is so critical,” he added.
Mad Ag has already identified four pilot projects for ZFP. The featured project is McCauley Family Farm in Boulder County. Others include Esoterra Culinary, Front Line Farming, and a farm project started by Andy Breiter, a young farmer (and also the president of the Flatirons Chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition) who specializes in holistic grazing.
Myint and Tanner Starbard, Director of Operations at Mad Ag, told me that their hope is that the first four projects will help to tell the story of why this work is important and what success looks like. For future projects, a cost-benefit analysis that compares the amount of carbon that can be sequestered against the costs of doing so (the model that’s currently in use in California for ZFP-funded farms) could be paired with a more comprehensive rubric that awards a grant applicant points based on things like whether or not the farm is local, part of a food share, owned by a BIPOC producer, has co-benefits, such as riparian restoration, etc. When asked about plans to work with a more diverse group of farmers, Starbard assured me that this was both a priority item and something that Mad Ag is already doing: “It’s not a compromise to work with a diverse group–you actually end up working with wonderful people. There’s no cost to it; it’s all benefit.”
“The ZFP program produces a win for all of us. Who doesn’t like a win?”
When it comes to impact, ZFP is partnering with more than just restaurants. For example, Scraps, a private compost collection service in the Denver metro area, has signed on–all new Scraps memberships include a $1 opt-out fee that Scraps will donate–as has Nude Foods Market out of Boulder. Farmers are getting in on the action, too, and not just to receive grants. Hugelrado Farms, located in Olde Town Arvada, recently became ZFP members. Shannon Bean Scalise, Hugelrado Farms Co-Founder and Farmer, explained, “We decided to become a Zero Food Print vendor because we agree that climate change mitigation work isn’t happening fast enough. The brilliance of the ZFP program is that it allows a community to directly support its local growers in sequestering carbon (and usually increasing yields!) and it gives us a conversation with our customers about how carbon sequestration actually happens. Our futures don’t have to be gloomy, there’s a very doable alternative. ZFP helps us tell that story.” Explaining how the one percent ZFP fee will work for the farm, Scalise noted that it will be auto-added to each ticket sold at City Park Farmers’ Market, as well as to class registration fees and items sold through Hugelrado Farms’ website. While customers can opt out from the fee if they want to, Scalise said it’s “an invitation to generosity,” and that the “best part of the program is that it goes to farmers through Mad Ag’s network.”
“The ZFP program produces a win for all of us. Who doesn’t like a win?” she concluded.
If you’re looking for ways that you can get involved, Myint has some ideas. First, if you’re a restaurant or business owner, consider signing on! If you’re a consumer, you can support a ZFP business and/or contribute directly to the ZFP fund. And third, learn a little bit more about compost and what you can do in your own home, like recycling those food scraps rather than putting them in the landfill.
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