Burning Questions: Can we eat our way out of the climate crisis?
Sep 20, 2023
Season 3 | Episode 3

Burning Questions: Can we eat our way out of the climate crisis?

The roots of climate solutions lie in our soil.

Improving soil health can be as nutritious to our bodies as it is to the atmosphere. New York Times’ food reporter and best-selling cookbook author Priya Krishna sits down with Anthony Myint, Executive Director of Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit focused on agricultural solutions to the climate crisis.   They discuss the importance of our individual food choices, the benefits of composting and Anthony explains how regenerative agriculture could hold the key to a healthier planet. Watch the interview below:


Amy Scott: Hey everybody. I’m Amy Scott host of How We Survive. And I’m really excited to bring you this installment of Burning Questions, because it’s all about one of my favorite topics food. Today we’re featuring food journalist Priya Krishna. She’s a writer at The New York Times and has written several cookbooks, including Indian-ish about her family recipes. And today, she’s in conversation with Anthony Myint, he is the co founder of Mission Chinese Food, and the executive director of Zero Foodprint. Zero Foodprint is a nonprofit that’s focused on agricultural climate solutions, including something called regenerative agriculture, something Anthony is very passionate about. It’s really cool because it focuses on healthy soil. And if your soil is healthy, it can actually pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it underground. It’s super interesting, they get into it in this conversation. So let’s dig in.

Music: How We Survive Theme song.

(Title card saying “How We Survive: Burning Questions” appears)

Priya Krishna: Anthony, I have known each other since I worked at an indie magazine called Lucky Peach. And he’s been, you’ve been one of the people who has inspired me most when it comes to food and climate change and actionable solutions. So I’m excited to chat with you today.

Anthony Myint: Well, thanks. And over that kind of 10 years, I feel like I’ve really been on a basically like a voyage of discovery, and kind of by doing and learning what not to do by doing and different things. So glad to just jump right in.

Priya Krishna: The burning question for this episode is: can we eat our way out of the climate crisis? By which I mean, do our individual choices around food matter? Anthony, what do you think?

Anthony Myint: I mean, how we survive, what can we do? These are like the big questions, I feel like, and I feel like I really used to believe in my ability as a chef, business owner and eater, to do my part and this nonprofit, we run Zero Foodprint, we literally had the slogan, let’s eat our way out of the climate crisis. I’m not just saying that, I guess my wife and I sort of went all in on that theory. So we, we put our life savings and many years of hard work into a restaurant, the perennial that was championing a lot of climate solutions, and, and in the end, we were sort of confronted with the fact that being good, and then just sort of like trying to be even better, might not actually change the world. But at the same time, we were learning about regenerative agriculture. And it started become clear to me that the whole food system would shift and there was so much optimism, even if it took decades.

Priya Krishna: I guess I’m curious, how did you even get into food and agriculture as a way of solving the climate crisis? I know you’ve worked in restaurants for a while, but like, how did you make that connection between food as a solution?

Anthony Myint: I mean, the real impetus was probably just having a daughter in 2012. And, you know, at the time, mission, Chinese Food had just kind of improbably, one restaurant of the year and the New York Times, and it felt like we were rubbing shoulders with all these luminaries, and there was such a chance to make real change. The more we learned about agriculture, the more it seemed like that could be a big part of the solution. And so the first thing we did sort of naively as restaurant tours was like, Well, let’s start a restaurant celebrating regenerative agriculture, you know, championing that and getting people to learn about it. And, you know, try to support those farms and do all this kind of Farm to Table 2.0, in a way, like trying to get people excited about the world saving opportunity.

Priya Krishna: Attacking, or not attacking, solving, the issue of climate change through the lens of the restaurant industry seems impossibly hard for a number of reasons. But, you know, I worked in restaurants and just the sheer amount of food waste generated by restaurants in these very fast paced environments where you’re trying to deliver an exceptional experience for someone that they can’t have at home. It just, often, to me feels like food waste solving the climate crisis, and the realities of the restaurant industry would be at odds with each other.

Anthony Myint: Yeah. And it almost gets down to this issue of sort of, like consuming food versus producing food and food waste, and restaurants, food waste across the whole food system is a really, really big issue that a lot of groups are working on. And I think that chefs and restaurants almost are probably like the least guilty in a way because you’ve got professionals sort of like trying to optimize portion size and working with budgets and anything that isn’t kind of served you can have for staff meal and all these things. But it’s still like a major opportunity in the industry for sure.

Priya Krishna: Where do you see the greatest opportunities for you know, the everyday restaurant?

Anthony Myint: Well, so I think that like really, when I started to learn about regenerative agriculture, that’s when it was like, everything started to click, because it wasn’t really about like giving up things that were delicious or that you wanted to do or whatever. It was more just like, changing how we grow food, changing farming in a way that would grow healthier, tastier ingredients, and maybe save the world.

Priya Krishna: I think like, a big question that I have, and that I think a lot of people will have is, you know, there’s one thing to do change at the institutional level. And another thing to, to change your habits on an individual level. So when, with all of the knowledge that you have about climate change, and food, what were the tweaks that you made to sort of your individual eating and purchasing habits?

Anthony Myint: You know, we started to buy organic and really just purchase like, sustainably raised meats and kind of reduce the amount of meat we were eating. Of course, in San Francisco, we were composting, but also starting to, like do it in the backyard and garden more and grow food, you know, and I think after you’ve like, worked to grow a pint of cherry tomatoes, it starts to become clear, like how valuable that is and how hard that is. So part of it was just sort of like that reconnecting and starting to make better decisions, you know, on the home front.

Priya Krishna: All of that sounds really wonderful in theory, but I’m curious like, not everyone can buy, you know, grass fed beef, not everyone can afford to buy organic, not everyone has the space to grow their own vegetables. So I’m curious, like, what are, are there smaller ways, like accessible, more accessible ways that people can change their eating habits that could work for people, whether they have a garden or not, whether they have the money to buy organic or not?

Anthony Myint: I mean, so it almost gets at this question of like, I kind of think we should be thinking bigger. So I want to start comparing regenerative agriculture to renewable energy. And so of course, you can do things like, you know, switch to the LED light bulb, you know, turn off the lights when you’re not at home, of course, whatever. But then there’s like much bigger interventions, where it’s like, Let’s improve the grid, let’s create a city level program or county level program where $1 From each energy bill is going to, you know, actually build a big solar farm and the grid becomes 10%, renewable. And so there’s a lot of ways in which I think that that notion of individual choice, it’s almost like we don’t even have the right choices to make.

Priya Krishna: You’ve talked a lot about regenerative agriculture. Can you explain regenerative agriculture to me like I am a kindergartner?

Anthony Myint: Yeah, in the simplest terms, it would be farming with nature. So it’d be a lot of different practices like applying compost, planting, cover crops, reducing plowing, but really all things that, you know, indigenous wisdom and agro-ecology have pointed towards for years. And then the term regenerative is, is sort of just around that kind of new idea that we can actually rebuild all the soils and take carbon out of the atmosphere through these practices.

Priya Krishna: So it’s just taking better care of our soil, basically.

Anthony Myint: Yeah, I mean, you could think of it as like, good farming, carbon farming, you know, any number of terms. But yeah, it’s mostly like increasing the amount of living things in the soil. Changing farming is a win win win, you know, it would be more profitable, it would taste better, it would be better for the community, and, you know, resilience and extreme weather. To me, it almost just comes down to like, how can we make that transition as quickly as possible.

Priya Krishna: And how can we, as individuals help make that transition?

Anthony Myint: Going back to renewable energy for a second, if you imagine that program where you send $1 per month on the energy bill? Yep. You know, before that program exists, nobody’s sending $1. And if, you know, if I knocked on your door and said, like, you know, hey, I’ve got a great idea, you know, give me $1 a month, that would almost seem, you know, bananas or whatever, right? That’s insane. But then, once that kind of program starts, it’s, it’s like a no brainer, you know, for the whole community and everybody. And so, I think that there’s ways to begin that sort of work, whether it’s your own backyard garden or community garden or at the farmers market, or, you know, at the city council level, but that it is starting to work in a whole new lane that is not just kind of conserving resources and doing less harm.

Priya Krishna: This is I’ve heard you talk about regenerative agriculture before, I don’t know hearing you explain it. It seems so simple and so complicated at the same time.

Anthony Myint: Where everything connects for the individual is probably with compost. And so you can start to imagine that compost from cities starts to go back to the rural area. get around the city, you can imagine that the, you know, trash Bill starts to include compost, California started composting across the entire state. Before that it was like San Francisco and different things. But now it’s a law in California. So here’s the world’s fifth largest economy, you know, or whatever starting to compost, I think New York City is about to Washington State has. And so I think maybe if you want to really dig into individual actions, then that’s where everything connects, because you can, you could do it at home, or you could do it at the regional level.

Priya Krishna: That’s, I mean, that’s like such a great starting point. And in fact, here in New York City, you can request a compost bin for free, and they’ll just drop it off outside your apartment. That’s what I did. And every week, I just dump my compost in there, and they someone takes it away. And they make it really easy. Similarly, just as a plug for composting, because I went deep into this in my, in my local neighborhood is a lot of community gardens, you can compost there, a lot of farmers markets have compost there. There’s like no, like, if you live in a major city, chances are there’s like a place to compost near you, or like a free solution that your city has provided. I imagine that this type of farming that you’re describing is more expensive than conventional farming, right?

Anthony Myint: That’s complicated. Because oftentimes, there’s like crop insurance and government subsidies and different things for quote, conventional farming. And so then you might not qualify. But in and of itself, it’s not necessarily more expensive. And so a lot of studies and research to kind of show like organic farming, regenerative farming, you know, after you’ve rebuilt your soil, and it’s humming along and healthy, then it’s actually much cheaper.

Priya Krishna: Actually, yeah, it’s actually going to like save you money in the long term, you just have to make the upfront investment and taking care of your soil.

Anthony Myint: And so in a way, that’s, that’s also part of where the compost comes in, like, if you, you know, not to oversimplify it. But if you were a regenerative or a conventional farmer, you’re using fertilizer, you know, whatever. And then someone just like, offered a bunch of free compost, you know, to you, you would take it and switch. And in fact, like at the federal level, like, I think there’s some steps like in 2021 100,000, farmers have been seeking federal funds to start switching to these kinds of practices. Wow. And so plenty of farmers are ready to switch. One of the biggest challenges is just there’s not enough money.

Priya Krishna: I want to talk about Zero Foodprint, because you all are doing such important work, but I feel like that work has really shifted since the Zero Foodprint started. And so I’m curious, like these days, for Zero Foodprint? What is your biggest priority? What are you all trying to do what feels most impactful that you are doing now?

Anthony Myint: Oh, thanks. Yeah. So at the beginning, we we started with kind of like the topic that this show was about, which is kind of like what can we do? And so we did what’s called a lifecycle assessment. So like an analysis of the different environmental factors of restaurant operations and foodservice operations, so ranging from like a three Michelin star restaurant to the right corporate cafeteria, at Square, you know, to a burger shop, or whatever. And basically, almost all of the carbon footprint of every single operation was the ingredients. And so I cannot, I can say, kind of, with clarity. Now, something I didn’t even know, then, which is like, we just need a way to change how food is grown. And so in a lot of ways, their footprint started to shift towards that through a collaboration with the state of California, in 2019, and then in the state of Colorado, and 2022. And so we’ve, we’ve basically been creating programs that make it possible to, to just send that dollar or penny or 1%, from a business directly to help local farmers make that change, like that dollar on the energy bill, but it could be, you know, a business, a wine company, compost company. And so now there’s like 80 businesses participating in this program, you know, and more each day, hopefully, but just directly, like, changing how food is grown in their own communities and in their supply chains.

Priya Krishna: Through this just like small tax basically?

Anthony Myint: Yeah, and so, you know, we would never say the word tax, but, but if you think about it, like, what we don’t like about taxes is they’re mandatory, and you kind of like, don’t know what happens with them. And in this case, it’s like, completely optional. And then it’s just going directly to these farm projects. And so, you know, you can think of it as an optional fee. But really, it’s like just a an opportunity really, to take local climate action that kind of didn’t exist before.

Priya Krishna: And like these things work we’ve seen I mean, I don’t want to use the word tax but soda taxes have worked we’ve seen in various cities. is where they charge for using a plastic bag. And I think like making the barrier to entry, like $1 makes a lot of sense. It sort of makes people feel like, okay, I can take action against this very systemic problem. And I can do it at this very seemingly low cost?

Anthony Myint: Sticking with soda tax per minute, like there’s a something like 10 states that have a small fee for recycling. So it’s like, caught the bottle bill or in California and a container redemption value. You go to the supermarket, you buy a six pack of beer, there’s five cents per beer, etc. And like, to my knowledge, nobody ever doesn’t buy the beer, you know, but it’s just like, This is what recycling needs to function. And so it’s almost like that, or if that kind of program was just in place, but to actually transition farms to regenerative AG, then we would start making really rapid progress.

Priya Krishna: Out of curiosity does food grown through regenerative techniques, like taste better?

Anthony Myint: I mean, as a chef, for sure, you know, that was my experience. And there’s an anecdote in Dan Barber book, The Third Plate, where like, they’re growing carrots at this amazing farm and someone runs in the kitchen, and they do a test with a spectrometer or something. And it’s like, Oh, my God, it’s 16 bricks, which is like a measure of the natural sweetness of the corn or the carrot or whatever. And then they like compare that they just like get one at the supermarket, and it’s zero bricks. And so it’s it’s definitely better tasting. But also, there’s all this research around how much more nutritious it is.

Priya Krishna: Are there foods that you’ve personally tried that you feel like just tastes so much better produce with regenerative agriculture?

Anthony Myint: I mean, I’m biased because we were serving beef from this ranch all the time. But the beef from Stemple Creek Ranch in Northern California is amazing. And it’s almost a little bit like venison or whatever, where it’s like really complex, and you can, you can almost like taste the terroir or something.

Priya Krishna: Wow. I feel like I always tried to do to leave these interviews with like, some kind of action. You know, maybe people aren’t ready to rally their whole community to compost or they can’t donate. But like, Are there farms or companies that are growing food regeneratively that should be on people’s radars that they can support?

Anthony Myint: Yeah, so I think that there’s a couple specific examples of that there’s a lot of new beers that are being produced with this perennial grain called Kernza. So Patagonia’s foodline Patagonia provisions is behind big effort along, you know, to create Kernza beers. And then I think that in each region, there’s a lot of different you know, ranches that are doing different levels of regenerative and so definitely that anything that you were personally growing in your backyard and all these things, it, it really helps kind of appreciate healthy soil. And so even if it’s like, you know, literally like the one barrier, whatever, I think it helps contextualize, like, what’s really happening on farms and the challenges.

Priya Krishna: I feel like every time I talk to you, Anthony, I feel both like daunted and like inspired and hopeful about climate change. I feel like you’re one of the very few climate experts that makes me feel hopeful rather than doomsday. So thank you. Thank you so much for the work that you do, for teaching me about the work that you do and reminding us that our individual habits and individual choices really do matter and that there’s a lot that we can be doing on like a local level on a policy level to make big changes. I’m like definitely someone who just gets really overwhelmed by climate change. I eat mostly vegetarian at home I compost but I’m like, what else can I do? And this has been really helpful so thank you.

Anthony Myint: Oh, yeah, thanks. And you know, I think that it is optimistic but daunting because a lot of change has to happen. But then I think where regenerative AG is exciting is because it’s it’s such a big win win win that it’s right can and will happen.

Priya Krishna: And if we get by in it at the individual level or the corporate level at the level of these all these middlemen, then we can do something about it.


Amy Scott: I’m Amy Scott, host of How We Survive. This Burning Questions featured Priya Krishna in conversation with Anthony Myint. Our senior producer is Hayley Hershman. Caitlin Esch is our editor. Mallory Brangan is our video editor, which by the way, Burning Questions is a video series. You can check that out on YouTube. Brian Allison is our sound engineer Bridget Bodnar is the director of podcasts, Francesca Levy is the executive director and Neal Scarbrough is vice president and general manager of Marketplace. Our theme Music is by Wonderly. This project was funded with an APMG cling Innovation Grant thanks so much for listening.

The team

Amy Scott Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Grace Rubin Assistant Producer