What does food have to do with climate change?

The food system contributes about half of all greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Between agriculture (~13%), deforestation (~18%), and food processing/storage/ manufacture/waste (~17%), it all adds up. Meanwhile, food and land use offer 15 of the top 25 solutions to climate change. Solving problems in our food system and turning them into benefits may be the most practical way to reverse global warming.

A renewable food system ought to be society’s top priority. According to drawdown.org food and land use related solutions represent 45% of the entire solution set and offer over $13 of public benefit for each dollar spent. Other solutions have a cumulative benefit to cost ratio of only ~$2.50 per dollar—still an economic opportunity. Furthermore, bear in mind that for practices like Managed Grazing, Drawdown’s calculations are conservative, employing a maximum sequestration rate of 0.6 tons/acre/year. Data since 2016 have indicated sequestration rates in the 3x-10x range.

What is carbon farming?

Growing food in a way that increases soil carbon, and (bonus!) decreases carbon dioxide in the air. Carbon farming involves practices such as compost application, cover cropping, managing the way cattle graze, crop rotation/polyculture, incorporating trees, hedgerows, perennial plants, etc. You could also think of it as farming that protects and improves soil by farming with nature and increasing the amount of beneficial organisms in soil, which improves flavor, nutrient density, weather resilience and the future of farming.

Why don’t farmers just improve their practices and charge more?

Many farmers lease their land and struggle to make ends meet. Furthermore, it’s pretty difficult for farmers to earn more money from better farming practices because the public is fairly disconnected from farming. Many consumers have label fatigue as it is, so Restore California is “digging in” to the soil science with every purchase, so you can improve the food system without having to open a textbook.

Why not just shop at farmers markets? If a restaurant already shops at the farmer’s market, how is this different?

Simply put, there is not enough supply of food grown in healthy soil, and many families and businesses cannot organize their schedules around the farmers market. Farmers markets and the restaurants that shop at farmers markets represent a small fraction of the food system. This program is enabling great restaurants and food service operations to lead the food system beyond sourcing well, and making it easy for all of us to help shift the vast majority of farmland from climate problem to climate solution.

Isn’t this a tax? 

No, because a tax is mandatory, and this is voluntary. It’s more like a fundraiser for good food and farming. Restaurants and diners can opt in or opt out of Restore California. The program represents an opportunity for individuals to directly improve the food system.

Meanwhile, every day, Americans are paying actual taxes that subsidize the kind of extractive farming that strips topsoil, reduces the nutrient content of produce and makes us more vulnerable to drought, flood, and fire. if you’re concerned about taxes, The next Farm Bill will be 2023, and hopefully informed voters will help change these harmful subsidies to industrial farming. but CO2 levels are rising and we’re losing good farms and healthy soil every day, so Restore California is not waiting. The idea is to get started by making change on the ground (not to mention underground).

How do you decide which farms?

Eligible farms apply by outlining one or more conservation practices and request funding for the implementation. The Restore California program uses that application data to complete a COMET assessment and we will provide funding for the most effective and beneficial projects (tons of CO2e /$). We encourage a restaurant or food service program to fund specific farming projects within their own supply chain and will try to honor those requests for any producers in the top 50% of the applicant pool. Please sign up for more information if you’d like to participate.

Where does the money go?

Restaurants are making donations to our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which places 100% of this money into the Restore California Fund held by Beneficial State Bank. From there, the money goes to implement carbon farm plans as a private sector complement to California’s Healthy Soils Program which provides grants to carbon farming projects like this. The deployment and implementation of carbon farming practices is overseen by the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts and the 96 county level RCDs.

So is this local and organic? 

Yes and no. We are in favor of local and organic, but in terms of flavor, nutrition and climate change, the most direct way to make an impact is to focus on soil health. The amount of living organisms in the soil (aka Soil Organic Matter %) has a bigger impact on the final quality and benefits of the produce than a certification or an arbitrary boundary. And though the organic movement is amazing, still only ~3% of acres in California are farmed organically.

it may go without saying, but the fastest way to make the change on the 97% of acres that are not focused on soil health is to actively change the practices on those acres. hundreds of farmers are standing by waiting to make the change to renewable farming and simply lack the funds to implement practices like compost application, cover cropping, reduced tillage etc. This program is directly funding the implementation of practices that lead to healthier soil. Full Stop.

How does the restaurant industry impact climate change?

Economically, the restaurant industry is the biggest part of the food system--larger than farming and retail--and in the U.S., one in ten members of the workforce are in food service. So it’s pretty big.

Chefs also wield cultural capital and are able to mobilize quickly, unlike the average farm or corporation, so there is a lot of potential to create a positive impact immediately.

The average restaurant meal has a carbon footprint of over 8 kg CO2e—similar to burning a gallon of gas. And 64% of that is from the ingredients. We invite conscientious restaurants to learn more and work on reducing their carbon footprint at zerofoodprint.org and Restore California is making it easy for everyone to reduce the impact of eating out, while actively improving the food system.

Why 1%?

Analyses of the actual carbon footprints from dozens of restaurants through Zero Foodprint, along with estimates of their sales, suggest that for the vast majority of restaurants, adding a charge of 1% towards carbon farming would equate to “doing their part.” In other words, it would accomplish as much environmental benefit as the estimated impact from the restaurant’s operation. We encourage restaurants and diners to be carbon neutral through Zero Foodprint, and/or to just send 1% to the planet and become part of the solution through Restore California.

Also, scientists and climate experts at drawdown.org estimate that to implement the 80 solutions analyzed, by 2050, would incur a cost of ~$27T. Global GDP is $88T, so the amount of capital that ought to fund solutions each year is ~0.98%. We’re rounding up to 1% as a general guide, based on the macroeconomic data from Drawdown and the microeconomic data from Zero Foodprint.

Are these offsets? 

Nope! Offsets require annual verification, involve other forms of overhead, and because soil is nuanced and some farms are heterogenous, true soil carbon offsets from farming, while legitimate, would be prohibitively expensive. But there is a lot of good science and modeling involved with carbon farm planning and this program is driving money toward those solutions and paying up front so farmers can take action immediately.

For more information on soil carbon, visit the carbon cycle institute and the CDFA’s Healthy Soils Program

What are the goals of Restore California?

If 1% of restaurants in California add a 1% charge with Restore California, the program would generate $10 million per year to implement renewable agriculture. If every restaurant in California added a 1% charge, as much as $1 billon could go toward improving the food system each year, while actively pulling tons of emissions out of the atmosphere. The goal is to increase the amount of awareness and funding toward these programs in California and to create a national and global blueprint for transitioning to a renewable food system.

Why do you use the term renewable?

The transition toward renewable energy over the past few years has involved frameworks such as community choice aggregation, that create convenient ways for consumers to improve the entire system by paying a few dollars extra on each month’s utility bill (instead of, for example, having to front the cost of solar panels, negotiate with a landlord and climb on the roof and install them).

Historically, the food system did not have a mechanism like CCA, and this program represents an analogous system—a community of restaurants and diners choosing to aggregate modest contributions to effectively transition a non-renewable food system to a renewable food system. Think of Restore CA as a pathway providing consumers with a convenient way to directly transition the food system toward renewable farming.

Why not just ask restaurants to stop serving beef?

While the overwhelming majority of current beef production is environmentally negative as well as inhumane, the land and the cattle on it represent the food system’s best opportunity to help reverse climate change. In other words, converting the biggest emitter to the biggest carbon sink would be much more beneficial than a few burps and farts, whether or not anyone eats the beef. And grassland ecosystems simply need ruminants to prune the grass. Besides, corporate beef producers in America would likely continue production and simply export more beef.

A more practical and scalable solution is for restaurants and food service to improve their supply chains by helping the ranchers improve their soil. This is an opportunity for a farm to table restaurant, a steak house, a burger shop, a fast food chain, a campus dining hall, etc. to make modest contributions and actively improve the land management, rather than simply consider alternatives. It’s a change-based model of change instead of choice-based model of change.

Strategies like managed grazing, compost application and planting trees on rangeland leverage a ruminant’s ability to prune grasses and provide 50-70lbs of fertilizer per cow per day. There are over 760 million acres of rangeland in the U.S. (ecosystems that mostly cannot support crops and used to integrate with bison) and properly managed cows and rangeland can re-store billions of tons of carbon that has been released into the atmosphere. Since people enjoy eating beef and it is one of the most nutritious ingredients, carbon ranching is an especially applicable solution for the massive feedlot beef industry. After all, cattle spend their first year on land before heading into the feedlot to fatten up and it’s more proactive to improve the ranching practices than to universally boycott, since that land and those animals are necessary components to global solutions.

Overall, Conscientious restaurants should serve less feedlot beef while all of us can help transition the entire supply chain toward renewable and climate beneficial beef production. It’s comparable to how biking to work and switching to electric cars are both good, but if electric cars actually also took emissions out of the atmosphere (!!!).

How do you measure soil carbon? 

There are a wide range of methodologies and emergent technologies, ranging from soil sampling to satellite detection, to advanced chromatography to smart phone apps. Restore California will be funding climate beneficial farming practices ASAP, based on modeled carbon sequestration from the COMET planner, and then determining the optimal verification methodology ahead of the five to ten year verification periods. The science is now strong enough to confirm that, across the whole project, there will be good “bang for the buck” in terms of emissions reduction. The ability to quantify individual farm and ranch level results are improving as resources pour into research and innovation. And even the absolute amount of benefit ascribed to carbon farming is trending up as scientists gain a better understanding of soil biology.

Can you provide more information?

Drawdown: Climate solutions explained and contextualized  
NY Times on carbon farming: “Can Dirt Save Earth?”
Civil Eats: “Carbon Farming Works. Can it Scale Up in Time?”
Science Advances on Agriculture’s Potential to Lower Global Temperatures
Science Direct on Carbon Negative Meat Production on a Conventional Dairy through AMP Grazing
California Department of Food and Agriculture sample of prior grant recipients: Healthy Soils Program
Full Life Cycle Assessment of White Oak Pastures: Climate Beneficial Beef
Teraton Initiative: Big Ag and Big Food Creating a Soil Carbon Market
Corey Booker Introduces Climate Stewardship Act to scale up Carbon Farming
NY Times Op-Ed: What if we Paid Farmers to Fight Global Warming?