Lentil Salad and the Benefits of Land Restoration

What I think should be the most talked-about environmental article of the year was published in the journal Nature this month! I almost missed it scrolling through my election-saturated news feed. Dryly titled, “Global Priority Areas for Ecosystem Restoration,” the scientific article identifies the Earth’s key priority areas for restoration in terms of biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and cost minimization. The authors found that by restoring 15% of land on Earth in the priority areas, we can avoid 60% of expected extinctions and sequester up to 34% of CO2 emissions released since the Industrial Revolution. This is huge news in terms of the scale of the impact we can have in mitigating the climate and ecological crises with a relatively small investment.

A 15% land restoration target was already agreed upon by 196 countries back in 2010, and supposedly the past decade was the “Decade for Biodiversity,” according to the United Nations General Assembly. We have done a terrible job of living up to that title. Today, at the end of the “Decade for Biodiversity,” only 12% of the 196 countries who signed the pledge have restored 15% of their degraded land. That’s an incredibly dangerous failure rate.

We are losing wildlife at an alarming rate. Two-thirds of the Earth’s wildlife population has been lost since 1970, collapsing valuable ecosystems in the process. Ecosystems are the web of life. They provide natural resources, regulate the climate, and act as buffers to prevent pandemics. We now know that the coronavirus pandemic is a direct result of environmental destruction because humans are brought into close contact with wild non-human animals, enabling the direct transmission of zoonotic diseases. The cost of a pandemic or of adapting to a changing climate pale in comparison to the cost of land restoration; it is among the cheapest solutions we have to sequester carbon.

You may be wondering, why am I writing about land restoration on a food blog? The connection in all of this to food is that the leading cause of environmental destruction is agriculture, and the land that must be restored to sequester carbon and avoid further extinction is land currently used for agriculture. That means converting farmland back to its natural state. That may sound controversial to you. You may ask, “but how are we going to feed a growing population with less farmland?” Here’s the thing, we already produce more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. The problem of feeding a growing population is not necessarily one of production (the interlinked challenges of poverty, conflict, and climate variability are the leading drivers of food insecurity). Yes, there are places in the world with what are called yield gaps, where farming systems can be drastically improved to increase productivity. The Nature article authors agree that yield gaps need to be addressed, but there is already plenty of degraded farmland that we can restore, and the benefits of doing so greatly outweigh the costs.

The global cost of inaction on the climate and ecological crises has become more evident in 2020 than ever before. There is still time to change course and build a safe and habitable Earth, and articles like these show how some solutions are simpler and more impactful than you think.

What’s all this got to do with lentil salad? Well, if you’re a regular reader of eat repeat, you know that lentils and pulses, in general, are climate and health heroes! If you’re trying to reduce your meat consumption, I recommend incorporating more lentils into your diet. This lentil salad is a favorite in my family.

Lentil Salad

Makes about four servings.

Ingredients

SALAD

  • 1 ¼ cups (250 gr) lentils (see note)
  • 2 bay leaves (optional)
  • 2-3 cups diced carrots, celery, and/or radishes
  • 1 bunch of fresh mint, minced
  • 1 bunch of fresh parsley, minced

VINAIGRETTE  

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 squeeze lemon juice (optional)
  • A pinch of sugar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Steps

  1. Rinse the lentils and place them in a pot with 2 ½ cups water, some salt to taste, and the bay leaves, if using. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 25 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, dice the carrots into little cubes and set them aside in a bowl. In the last 5 minutes of lentil cooking time toss the carrots on top of the lentils and cover the pot. This will gently cook them so that they are not so crunchy and hard in the salad. Dice the celery and/or radishes.
  3. For the herbs, either chop them up in a food processor or by hand.
  4. Toss all of the vinaigrette ingredients into a glass jar and shake to emulsify. Add more salt or vinegar to taste.
  5. Once the lentils have finished cooking, remove the bay leaves and pour them into a big bowl. If you have some time, let them cool for a bit, then mix in the veggies, herbs, and vinaigrette. Let cool. The salad will taste even better the next day.

NOTES:

  • I find that Puy and black beluga lentils work better than the plain green or brown lentils because they stay firm and intact after cooking.
  • The herbs really make the salad, so don’t skimp on your “bunch” of mint and parsley.
  • Serve this salad with dips like hummus or baba ganoush and bread, with tomato and cucumber salad, or roasted vegetables.

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