Can a bowl of soup save the world?
At the age of 21, I was given the task of helping to figure this out. One of the first jobs I had after college was as a research assistant at an institute called the World Hunger Program. This was a think tank of impassioned and idealistic academics working towards the goal of promoting sustainable agricultural development worldwide. I remember being asked to call the USDA to find out the nitrogen content of the waste products of various farm animals. That’s right: how much nitrogen is contained in the manure of goats, sheep, cows, et cetera– not to eat, but as organic fertilizer. The data are now long gone from my memory, being as they were minutiae at the molecular level. Not surprisingly, I never came close to the answer to the broader question, of how to feed the almost 7 billion inhabitants of our planet.
Decades after I worked on world hunger research, the sustainability of our food supply has become a hot topic. My nose out of the books, I now have my own simple answer to this question: the easiest way to ensure that we all have food to eat in the future is to eat a plant-based diet. Essentially, what you choose to eat could save the world.
Frances Moore Lappé, activist and author of 1971’s Diet for A Small Planet, has dedicated her career to this idea. In this book, Lappé decries the existence of hunger, of food scarcity, in a world of plenty. She illustrates the enormous waste that comes with factory farming, a system she describes as “creating hunger out of plenty.” She advocates for a restructuring of how we produce and allocate the food supply, and recommends a plant-based diet as one logical and healthful way to go about this. Even greater than the goal of promoting an equitable food supply, she proposes “living democracy;” that ethical living encompasses not only what we do in the voting booth but our daily choices of what we buy and how we live.
Her message has rung loud and with great clarity to millions since then, inspiring a new generation of food activists. More recently, Michael Pollan, who you’ll remember as the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,has stated that “eating is a political act.” Jonathan Safran Foer carries on the theme in Eating Animals. The resurgence of interest in taking a personal stake in our food supply shows that there is still a lot of work to be done. Now more than ever.
Even if you aren’t interested in eating as a political act, you might want to consider a plant-based diet for your personal health. The nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell, co-author of The China Study, was recently quoted in The New York Times explaining these benefits:
“The idea is that we should be consuming whole foods…We should not be relying on the idea that nutrient supplementation is the way to get nutrition, because it’s not. I’m talking about whole, plant-based foods. The effect it produces is broad for treatment and prevention of a wide variety of ailments, from cancer to heart disease to diabetes.”
Eating conscientiously is simple. My favorite mantra for healthy eating comes from Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And eating conscientiously can be so delicious, you’ll never miss meat. As a good example, here’s my favorite recipe for lentil soup.
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Lentil Soup for a Small Planet
I am presenting Frances Moore Lappé’s original recipe to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Diet for a Small Planet. This is one of the tastiest versions of lentil soup I’ve had. The recipe carries the name of “Lentils, Monastery Style,” but its rich flavorings are anything but ascetic. Herbs, sherry, and a rich garnish of swiss cheese make this not only a balanced vegetarian meal, but are the perfect accents to the earthy flavor of the lentil base. This recipe is a good example of how eating conscientiously doesn’t mean eating blandly. You could easily make endless variations by substituting different herbs. My suggestions follow.
Serves: 4 to 6
¼ cup olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 ½ teaspoon fresh thyme, finely minced, or 1/2 tsp dried
1 ½ teaspoon fresh marjoram, finely minced, or 1/2 tsp dried
3 cups seasoned vegetable stock
1 cup dry lentils, rinsed
Salt to taste
¼ cup freshly chopped parsley or Italian parsley
One 1-pound can diced or crushed tomatoes
¼ cup dry sherry
Garnishes: 2/3 cup grated Swiss cheese, parsley
1. Heat oil in a large pot and sauté onions and carrot for 3 to 5 minutes, until onions are soft and translucent.
2. Add thyme and marjoram and sauté 1 minute.
3. Add stock, lentils, salt, parsley, and tomatoes and cook, covered, until lentils are tender, about 45 minutes.
4. Add sherry, and adjust salt to taste.
5. Ladle into bowls and garnish with grates swiss and extra parsley.
Suggested accompaniments: cornbread or a crusty loaf of bread.
Indian: substitute cumin seeds and turmeric powder for the thyme and marjoram and cilantro for the parsley; omit Swiss cheese and substitute with a dollop of yogurt.
Mexican: substitute oregano and chili powder for the thyme and marjoram and cilantro for the parsley; substitute monterey jack for the Swiss.
Recipe adapted from Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé
© 2011 Linda Shiue