Change diet, add lentils first

Climate change must be stopped before it stops us! How can we do this? We must evolve from a fossil-fuel driven economy to a more sustainable one. Many industries burn vast amounts of fossil fuels. The result is an increase in greenhouse gases which contribute to global climate change.

The agricultural system produces 26% of greenhouse gas emissions. This was cited in the journal Science in an article titled “Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers.” Therefore, massive modifications must occur in the manner in which food is produced and distributed. Changing our diets will give the agricultural system the incentives to make the necessary changes needed to stop climate change.

Dietary modification is such a broad topic that it advantageous to highlight one specific adjustment. Adding lentils to our diet is a great start which can ultimately lead to changes in the agricultural system. Lentils are pulses. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “pulses are a type of leguminous crop that are harvested sole for the dry seed.”

The online Your Dictionary states that legumes are: Any of a large number of eudicot plants belonging to the family Fabaceae (or Leguminosae). Their characteristic fruit is a seed pod. Legumes live in a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in structures called nodules on their roots. These bacteria are able to take nitrogen from the air, which is in a form that plants cannot use, and convert it into compounds that the plants can use. Lentils, therefore, do not require synthetic fertilizers manufactured from fossil fuels which results in a lower carbon footprint.

Yantai Gan, a research scientist specializing in alternative crops and diversification at the Agriculture and Agri-Food at Canada’s Research Centre, studied the relationship between lentils and soil fertility. He found that lentils and their root bacteria provide between 50 and 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre. He also found that nitrogen at spring planting was 44% higher in soil previously planted in lentils. The FAO reports that rotating pulses with cereal crops results in higher yields of cereals amounting to 1.5 tonnes more per hectare.

Besides not requiring fossil fuel-based fertilizer, lentil crops do not rely on energy-intensive irrigation. Thus, the carbon footprint for one kilogram (kg) of lentils is only 0.9 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent. This includes emissions before they leave the farm, transport, wholesale and retailoperations, cooking and waste disposal. In comparison, the equivalent carbon footprint for one kg of beef is 27 kg of CO2 equivalent. Cheese is 13.5 kg, pork is 12.1 kg, and chicken is 6.9 kg.
In fact, according to the FAO, 14.5% of annual greenhouse gasses are caused by livestock production.

Sujatha Bergen, policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, states that: “We’ve estimated that if Americans were to cut a quarter-pound of beef from their diet a week – that’s the average of a hamburger – it’d be like taking 10 million cars off the road for a year.”

There are other negative environmental consequences of raising livestock. Wayne Martindale and Caroline Wood, PhD researcher in plant biology, discuss this in The Conversation, an online news source. They state that: “livestock farming requires huge amounts of water and land for grazing and feed production, taking up an estimated 70% of all agricultural land and 27% of the human water footprint.”

The authors of the piece in The Conversation add that: “Pulses are also highly water-efficient; for each gram of protein, the average global water footprint of pulses is only 34% that of pork and 17% of beef. Gan found that lentils are ideally suited for semiarid areas. Meanwhile, the carbon footprint of pulses is less than half that of winter wheat and on average 48 times lower than the equivalent weight of British beef cattle.”

Substituting lentils for meat is something that individuals can easily do to lower their carbon footprint. Lentils can be stored for a long time and do not need to be refrigerated prior to cooking, thus lowering their carbon footprint during storage. According to CookingLight magazine, lentils can be soaked to shorten cooking time, further reducing consumption of fuel and production of greenhouse gases. Lentils also cook faster than other legumes too. They can be frozen, and when people are tired and hungry, they can quickly reheat them and combine them with whatever is on hand rather than going out to a fast food chain. Their versatility can help reduce food waste. For example, they can be mixed with various leftovers thus decreasing the amount of edible food that might otherwise be wasted and thrown away.

Unfortunately, there are some significant downsides to lentils. Meat and dairy products are very popular, and it is extremely difficult to change people’s food preferences. Consuming lentils without any herbs and spices is not very appealing as lentils by themselves have very little flavor. Red lentils turn very mushy when cooked, and many people are turned off by their texture as eating them is like eating a bland pudding.

However, our new food pallet does not have to be boring, bland, and bereft of flavor. Fortunately, various ingredients can enhance the taste of lentils. They are very versatile and can be consumed as a hot cereal, in salads, main dishes, including soups, stews, veggie burgers and loaves, sweet and sour dishes, stuffed peppers, casseroles, and side dishes. They can even be sweetened and used as an ingredient in desserts, including brownies.

Lentils can also be used to produce a highly nutritious flour. According to the writers of The Power of Pulses, lentil flour can be used in breads, cookies, and cakes, as well as thickeners for soups and sauces. The authors add that “Mixing pulse flour with brown rice flour or another gluten-free grain, such as amaranth, provides a complete and delicious protein.”

Lentils can even be used to produce a nutritious pasta. Dietitian Rachel Warren, M.S., R.D., stated in Consumer Reports that pasta made from lentils is higher in protein and fiber than wheat-based pasta. As an added bonus, lentil-based pasta is gluten-free.

The history of the consumption of lentils is long and extensive. Lentils are associated with many countries and historical figures found throughout ancient history. For thousands of years, lentils have been consumed along with barley and wheat. Scientists believe that the cultivation of lentils began in central Asia. Lentils have been found throughout the area surrounding the Mediterra
nean.

Evidence of lentil crops dating from ten thousand years ago has been found on the banks of the Euphrates river in what is now northern Syria. Lentils were consumed in Greece as early as 6000 BC. Hippocrates used lentils in his medical practice. The Greek playwright Aristophanes called lentil soup the “sweetest of delicacies.”
Lentils arrived in Egypt around 2000 BC. Remains of a lentil puree were found in a tomb in Thebes dating from around 1750 BC.

Moreover, lentils were cited in the Old Testament. In Genesis 25, Esau sold his brother Jacob his birthright for a “pottage of lentils.” In 2 Samuel, a field of lentils was invaded by the Philistines. Shammah stood in the middle of the field, vanquished the Philistines, and the crop was saved. In Ezekiel 4, God commanded him to “Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself.”

Ancient Rome also utilized lentils. Apicius wrote the first Roman cookbook 2000 years ago. He included a chapter on legumes which featured recipes for lentils with mussels, chestnuts or spices. Even though generally considered food for the lower classes, lentils were found at Roman banquets. The Rerum Rusticarum, 37 BC, was a publication that included the value of pulses for supplying nourishment. The obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City was transported by ship from Egypt cushioned by 2.8 million pounds of red lentils.

In India, lentils were cultivated as early as 2500 BC. Lentil dishes of all types are found throughout India and regional areas specialize in their own unique recipes. The word dahl or daal refers to either lentils or dried split pulses such as lentils, peas, and beans. Indian dishes frequently combine lentils and rice along with various herbs and spices. According to Kavita Mehta, founder of the web-based Indian Foods Co., lentils are consumed in some form at least twice a day in “any self-respecting Indian household.”

In England, because of food shortages during World War 1, English cooks used lentils to make cheese and lentil savories. Isaac Hepworth, English blog writer, wrote about his grandmother’s recipe, which included cheese, lentils, breadcrumbs, onions, and a little oil. Karen Burns Booth in her blog, Lavender and Lovage, wrote about the cheese and lentil sandwich filling recipe that she found in the English publication, People’s Friend from World War 1. This recipe also included cheese, lentils, breadcrumbs, onions, oil, plus the addition of parsley. Another recipe for lentils was included in Victory in the Kitchen: Wartime Recipes from World War II published by the Imperial War Museum in England.

During World War II, legumes, including lentils, were also utilized in the United States as an alternative to meat. Food shortages and rations led to the publication of the General Foods Corporation titled Recipes For Today in 1943. This booklet provided creative ways to prepare meals, using many General Foods products. They included a recipe for bean, pea, or lentil soup.

Various lentil dishes are also currently found in north African countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Middle Eastern countries. Lentils are also found in modern France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. The ubiquity of lentils is further shown by the fact that the word for the lens of the eye comes from the Latin word for lentil. This is because eye lenses are similar in shape to lentils, being wide in the middle and narrowed at the ends.

As well as having an essential body part named after them, lentils provide important nutrients for the whole body. Unfortunately, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lentils do not contain the complete protein that is necessary for a healthy diet. Lentils lack the amino acids methionine and cystine. If a person consumed no other proteins, it would be detrimental to their health. Fortunately, methionine and cystine are found in grains. Therefore, consuming rice or other grains along with lentils provides a complete protein. Of course, cooking rice requires energy use.

However, according to the article “Effect of Moisture Content on Cooking Time of Rice” published by the Proceedings of the Manufacturing & Industrial Engineering Symposium, soaking rice considerably reduces cooking time. This results in less greenhouse gases.

Rice Pilaf served with lentils make a terrific basis for a meal which would provide a complete protein, vitamins and minerals along with plenty of fiber. Besides providing protein, lentils contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This might explain why the Nurses Health Study found that women who ate lentils or other pulses two or more times a week reduced their frequency of breast cancer by 24%.

Additional healthy advantages of consuming lentils are provided by Tallene Hacatoryan, M.S., R.D. She states that eating a diet high in fiber increases weight loss and lowers the risk of heart disease. Folate and magnesium are found in lentils, and they contribute to heart health. Research has shown that lentils reduce both blood glucose and cholesterol levels. Furthermore, lentils are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have an anti-inflammatory effect. Folic acid found in lentils helps the body maintain new cells and prevents the changes in DNA that can lead to cancer.

There are even more health advantages of lentils. Sharon O’Brien, M.S., R.D. states: “Lentils are rich in polyphenols. These are a category of health-promoting phytochemicals. Some of the polyphenols in lentils, such as procyanidin and flavanols, are known to have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects. In addition, when tested in the lab, the polyphenols in lentils were able to stop cancer cell growth, especially on cancerous skin cells. The polyphenols in lentil may also play a part in improving blood sugar levels.”

Also, lentils do not contain either cholesterol or gluten. Another advantage of lentils is that they are very inexpensive. This is especially important for impoverished countries and the poor in wealthy countries. Of course, merely consuming lentils is not going to stop climate change. However, increasing the use of lentils will help slow it down. Additionally, lentil consumption will improve both the health of people and the environment.

Lenore Hitchler

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