The Perennial in San Francisco seeks to be a laboratory for cutting greenhouse emissions from restaurants.

At the new restaurant scheduled to open this summer in downtown San Francisco, diners will be able to feast on vegetables grown using a surprising source: the restaurant’s own scraps.

The Perennial plans to use an aquaponics system involving a greenhouse, dehydrated worms, and fish to turn kitchen scraps into 75 pounds of vegetables weekly, says Karen Leibowitz, one of the restaurant’s co-founders.

The aquaponics system is one of several unusual approaches the restaurant owners say they will use to help reduce greenhouse emissions. They also plan to serve bread made from a new perennial grain developed in Kansas and beef from a pioneering carbon farm that is storing carbon in its soils.

Leibowitz says she and her husband Anthony Myint, along with chef Chris Kiyuna, intend their restaurant to be a laboratory for testing just how environmentally friendly restaurants can be.

Adding to the excitement involving their new effort is the reputation that Leibowitz and Myint have for running popular restaurants, says Eli Zigas, the food systems and urban agriculture program manager at SPUR, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit organization.

“The people behind The Perennial have a track record of being tastemakers and being ahead of the curve — and creating things that people embrace as wonderful, pleasurable, and delicious,” he says. “And if they can do that while also reducing the ecological footprint, I think that’ll go a long way to demonstrate that adapting to climate change doesn’t mean your life is worse.”

A Newborn…and The Climate Impacts of Food

The seeds of The Perennial began with Leibowitz’s and Myint’s concerns about climate change, which deepened after the birth of a daughter in 2012: “That does get a person thinking about the long-term future,” Leibowitz says.

They learned that producing the world’s food accounts for a significant portion of total greenhouse emissions — as much as 30 percent, according to one estimate. Emission sources include cows belching methane, farmers converting forests into cropland, methane rising from rice paddies, and delivery trucks burning fossil fuels.

One way to reduce a restaurant’s contribution to climate change is to cut food waste, which accounts for the equivalent of 3.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year.

So restaurant staff will feed kitchen scraps to worms and larvae, which are dehydrated and fed to fish. Fish waste will feed plants growing in their tanks — the source of some, though not all, vegetables for the restaurant.

To raise money for their aquaponics greenhouse, Leibowitz and Myint launched a Kickstarter campaign, which surpassed its goal of raising $24,000.

A New Grain

The restaurant, which Leibowitz says now is scheduled to open in June, takes its name from the term for a plant that lives year after year: a perennial.

Agricultural researchers have found that growing perennial crops can help the environment by reducing soil disturbances and by improving soil and water quality. And studies have shown that some perennials — like the biofuel crop Arundo donax — remove significant amounts of carbon from the air, storing it in the soil.

But most food crops — including the grains corn, wheat, and rice — grow from annual plants, which die after one year.

So, Leibowitz says, The Perennial is partnering with The Land Institute, a well-regarded Kansas-based nonprofit research organization that has developed a perennial grain called kernza. Similar to wheat, kernza is a grain bred from a wild perennial called intermediate wheatgrass.

Source: The Perennial website.

Sieglinde Snapp, an ecologist at Michigan State University, has compared kernza to annual wheat in test plots at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, a research station that includes an experimental farm. She says the jury is still out on whether kernza stores more carbon in soils than annual wheat, but her results show that growing the perennial grain improves water quality by slashing nitrogen runoff.

The Land Institute is to provide kernza flour to The Perennial, which is working also with the well-known baker Chad Robertson — owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco — to serve bread made from kernza at the restaurant.

The pairing of Tartine and The Perennial is a game-changer for kernza, Zigas predicts.

“Suddenly, something that was known only to people in the world of sustainable agriculture becomes an ingredient that chefs around the world will know about and care about because a bakery like Tartine is using it,” he says.

Sucking In Carbon

The restaurant is also partnering with a team of scientists at the Carbon Cycle Institute, a California organization researching a practice called carbon farming.

Jeff Creque, a director of the institute, studies the effects of spreading compost on rangelands in California. He and other researchers have found that adding compost — decayed vegetable matter or manure — stimulates growth in grasses, boosting the amount of carbon dioxide they capture from the air and store in the soil. He is also studying how to maximize carbon storage under grazing conditions.

The Perennial is the first restaurant to serve beef from a ranch that is using these carbon-sequestering protocols, Creque says.

A Laboratory for Restaurateurs…and for Customers?

In addition to serving vegetables from the aquaponics greenhouse, bread made from kernza, and beef raised on a carbon farm, Leibowitz says The Perennial is striving to cut its emissions through more traditional means, such as by installing energy-efficient appliances.

Her goal is to share effective methods with others in the restaurant industry.

“We’re trying to innovate practices that would be widely replicable,” she says. The Perennial will donate a percentage of its proceeds to Zero Foodprint, a new organization working with the industry on environmental best practices. (Myint, Leibowitz’s husband and co-founder, serves on Zero Foodprint’s advisory board.)

In that way, The Perennial is trying to be more than just a restaurant — it also will be a laboratory for those looking for ways to cut back on food’s contribution to climate change.

That means, Leibowitz says, there’s a key question that still needs to be answered.

“The big experiment is: Are customers drawn to this? You know, will they want to dine in a way that highlights environmentalism, or will it be a turn-off?” she says. “My hope is that customers will actually be drawn to it, and so in that sense it won’t be any kind of sacrifice at all.”

Also see: A Climate Friendly Restaurant

Sara Peach

Sara Peach is the Senior Editor of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist, and...