It only takes 1%: unfucking the planet with Anthony Myint

25 September 2020

Ever since the Occupy Wall Street protests over a decade ago, the distinction between the wealthiest 1% of society and rest, the other 99%, has entered the common lexicon as a stark reminder of the wildly disparate impacts that the different sections of the population have on our planet, and our future.

It can be easy to lose hope in the face of these massive and growing inequalities and the slow pace of change we see towards creating a brighter, greener world. But that’s not something we can afford to do, and indeed, there are easy, pragmatic solutions which we can all enact in order to turn the ship around. Indeed, it would take just 1% (but not that 1%!) of our economy to fix much of the problem.

Our guest today is Anthony Myint, chef, activist and author originally from Virginia and now residing in San Francisco, where he is a founder of Mission Chinese Food and Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit organization mobilizing the food world around agricultural climate solutions. For Terra Madre 2020 he’s provided us with a Food Talk (available from October 9) where he discusses the need for a table-to-farm strategy that allows everyone to contribute to to unfucking the planet.

Anthony, what first attracted you to cooking?

I grew up hanging out with my grandmother and watching cooking shows on TV, and my dad had a routine of giving food to those in need, so I had a pretty imbued sense of bonding around food and the idea of giving back through food. 

After backpacking in 2003 I tasted—and experienced—so many different kinds of food and environments that were a major departure from the restaurants in suburban Virginia at the time. I became interested in cooking/restaurants, mostly due to a sense of: “Why doesn’t somebody just do XYZ?”

You learn pretty quickly that there are very real reasons! But also that there are many ways to innovate—the whole industry is basically about “making it work.” We started doing pop-ups before that was even a term, and the rest is history.

Beyond cooking, how you did become more aware of issues around sustainability?

We started thinking about the future and really about climate change after having a daughter in 2012. We wanted to use our platform in the industry to work toward solutions and that impulse really accelerated as we learned about regenerative agriculture and some of the mind-blowingly-optimistic science. Now that we can officially solve the climate crisis, and it would only take 1% of global GDP, I’m again motivated by the feeling of: “Why don’t we just do XYZ?”, and the confidence that we can find a way to make it work.

What are the goals of your new organization, Zero Foodprint?

Zero Foodprint began with trying to understand and offer solutions. We all want to “do our part,” but we didn’t know what that meant. We studied our environmental footprint and the industry, and for the first few years, our focus had been on restaurants going carbon neutral. But after conducting dozens of life cycle assessments and finding that 1% of sales was almost always enough, combined with the macro climate science that 1% globally was enough, we’ve been moving toward that simpler approach. 

It’s 1% to unfuck the planet, and as leaders adopt the approach, regional governments can implement corresponding policies to create a “new normal” which regenerates foodsheds and restores the climate. We’re working on it, but more or less just began in earnest before Covid, so I’ll let you know how it’s going in a couple years.

We all know how big the obstacles are ahead — what signs of hope keep you motivated?

I’m motivated by the opportunity. If it was gonna take raising prices by 50% there’d be no hope. If it was going to take 10%, there might be no hope. The fact that the world can be saved if we use 1% instead of 0.00% is inspiring because it is so damned plausible. We can truly and legitimately take care of our guests and our communities, when it comes to climate for just 1% used for regenerative farming practices. It’s a bargain!

When someone comes to dine at your restaurant, how are messages regarding the environment communicated? How do you approach that barrier between feeding someone and educating them?

We have postcards that explain the program, and it’s posted on the menu, etc. At Mission Chinese San Francisco we stress-tested this with a 3% charge. Over a year and 40,000 diners later, almost nobody even noticed. And among those who did, the vast majority were psyched to be part of the solution. We had one party of two opt out and one party of four opt out. That’s it. So as an operator, we have a natural anxiety that customers will be upset, but in fact, the response is gratitude and optimism. It’s a huge win-win-win.

Graphic by Zero Foodprint

Zero Foodprint grew out of an older project of yours, the Perennial Farming Initiative – what kinds of impact did that have?

We’ve helped dozens of restaurants be carbon neutral for years. Since we pivoted to a focus on carbon farming, we’ve awarded over $100,000 in grants to six farm projects to remove over 1200 tons of carbon from the atmosphere (equivalent to not burning 140,000 gallons of gas). We just began in earnest with this approach in January 2020, in collaboration with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Air Resources Board. So again, we’re really just getting started.

Last but not least – what role do you think Slow Food should be playing in the future of sustainable food and therefore, a healthy planet?

Slow Food has such a devoted and conscientious following that they’re uniquely positioned to lead the change! I think Slow Food should lead a global Table-to-Farm Movement wherein 1% from restaurants or 1% on all conventional food purchases goes towards helping farmers switch to regenerative practices. We can all afford that and if you can’t or don’t want to pay it, then opt out. But we need business as usual to be part of solving the problem.

It’s time to acknowledge that we need a complementary approach to Farm-to-Table—we need a Table-to-Farm Movement to change the food system and restore the climate. The good news is we can do this, if we come together.

Anthony Myint is a protagonist of the Food Talks, a new and freely accessible format of Terra Madre. Each guest has ten minutes to explore their thoughts on the world we live in, and the future we want for it. The full Food Talk with Anthony Myint will be released on October 9, along with the other episodes in the series.

by Jack Coulton,