The outdoor clothing company fighting climate change with food.
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Patagonia Provisions
Credit: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

Ten years ago, Birgit Cameron was invited to sit down with Yvon Chouinard, the founder and CEO of Patagonia. The head of the 40-year-old outdoor clothing company, which had long been committed to sustainability and environmental stewardship, had a question for Cameron: What would Patagonia look like if, instead of climbing gear and clothing, it made food?

He was asking the right person. Cameron, who at the time ran a food business, had grown up thinking about food systems. Her dad worked in the food and wine import and export industry. Her grandfather had worked in the global coffee trade.  She'd learned the ins and outs of supply chains at the dinner table. "Those were my 10,000 hours," she says with a laugh. For Cameron, the answer to Chouinard's question would mean asking another question: What would a food company look like if each product it made solved an environmental problem?

Today, Cameron is the head of Patagonia Provisions, which has answered that question through 45 products and counting. While some of their early launches (such as plant-based dehydrated chili and hot cereals that can be heated on a camping stove) were aimed at the outdoor enthusiasts who have made up the company's traditional fan base, in recent years, Patagonia Provisions has broadened its offerings to appeal to environmentally-conscious home cooks who care about where their food comes from, offering an international portfolio of natural wines and a line of Spanish conservas to their offerings. Each product, from a packet of hot-smoked salmon to a box of dried fusilli, in its own way does its part to, as Cameron says, "save the home planet."  

Many companies donate a percentage of profits to environmental causes; others have made changes to their production process — sourcing organic ingredients, and eliminating problematic ones — to make a greener, cleaner version of their foods. What sets Patagonia Provisions apart is that making and selling food isn't their primary goal: solving an environmental problem is.  

"We always start by asking, who is the expert? We draw upon the latest knowledge and innovation as we determine what products should be made," Cameron says. For example, for their first food product, Patagonia Provisions reached out to researchers and fishing experts to figure out how best to address ocean health. What they learned — that wild salmon stocks were crashing, and that net pens for farmed salmon were causing issues for wild fish — led them to kick off a line of ready-to-eat wild salmon. In 2013, in partnership with Wild Fish Conservancy, Patagonia Provisions created a set of sourcing practices that prioritized small fisheries that fished at the mouths of rivers where fish populations can be counted (rather than in the open ocean, where they cannot), working exclusively with those that individually handled the fish, carefully monitored fish populations, looked after their communities, and were good environmental stewards. Each package of Patagonia Provisions salmon is stamped with the species of fish, the harvest location, and even the type of gear used to catch it. It also contains a thick, flaky filet of ready-to-eat, cooked wild sockeye that happens to be delicious. (I highly recommend the smoked lemon pepper salmon.)

It's important that the outcome of what Cameron calls the "problem-solution-product business model" isn't just a complex and deeply thoughtful approach to rethinking our food supply chain — it's also a growing pantry of immaculately sourced ingredients. "Everything we make has to be really delicious, otherwise no one will buy it!" Cameron says. A line of tangy, chewy, spicy buffalo jerky supports the increase of Great Plains buffalo, which are a keystone species in an ecosystem that draws down carbon from the atmosphere. A box of ají molido-dusted crackers gets their sturdy bite from flour made with breadfruit sourced from the Breadfruit Institute in Hawaii and Jungle Foods in Costa Rica, which support sustainable agroforestry — the complementary growth of different crops that grow in a diverse forest. A new line of dried pasta makes use of Kernza, a perennial grain with roots that sink 12-feet deep into the soil, also drawing down carbon and fighting global warming.  

With each product, Cameron hopes, Patagonia Provisions will help to create consumer demand, while also showing other companies new paths for how these foods might be made. "We're not purely extractive. Each product must answer the question, how do you keep the system moving?" 

Most recently, Patagonia has made forays into the world of beverages, distributing small-batch, sustainably produced sakes, wines, and ciders. Natural wine was a natural fit, Cameron says.  "Wine people understand terroir, what place means, the effect of soil on the grape, the fact that what happens on the land matters in the wine." After an initial collaboration with Oregon microbrewery HopWorks to create a Kernza beer, this spring, Patagonia Provisions partnered with national craft brewer Dogfish Head to launch Kernza Pils, the first of a planned series of beers made with the perennial grain and other game-changing ingredients. (HopWorks still brews Patagonia Provisions Kernza beer for distribution in Japan.)

"National distribution with Dogfish Head allows us to add heft and leads to scale," Cameron says. "It's great to do things on a small level, absolutely, but to do what we need to do in the time we need to do it, we need to move quickly. Partnering with Dogfish Head, which is going through their own learning journey about what they can do to affect change around climate, allows us to take Kernza growth to the next level, so we have more carbon drawing down, and more impact." 

It also showcases what collective action to combat climate change in the food business can look like. "We can do only so much ourselves," Cameron says. "Where we can come together and showcase what others are doing, everyone moving in the same direction, you can't believe what we can accomplish."

We'll drink to that.

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