Learning how to cook beans is one of my favorite food memories. I remember the earthy ritual of sorting the dry beans, running my fingers over their smooth surfaces, pulling out small stones. I remember the soaking of pintos, black and red beans (always soak your beans!) and the transformation of water and salt. I remember the rich aromas of cumin and garlic and the soft, creamy broth that came out of it all — like nothing you’d ever find in a can.
There’s no comparison between mass-produced food and comida casera (home cooking). But legumes in all forms — whether they’re dry or canned — are healthier for the Earth, and for us, than many other foods. And (outside of feed crops for livestock) they aren’t a leading source of habitat degradation, biodiversity loss, climate emissions, land use, and direct species killings the way cows are; wildlife like wolves aren’t shot or trapped at the behest of lentil farmers the way they are on behalf of cattle owners.
A comparison of beef to kidney beans at Loma Linda University showed kidney beans required …
- 18 times less land.
- 10 times less water.
- 9 times less fuel.
- 12 times less fertilizer.
- 10 times less pesticides.
Legumes also don’t come with the environmental pollution of slaughterhouses, which are the leading source of nitrogen pollution. In fact, legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. That’s why they’re a key part of cover crops used to build soil health in regenerative models and agroecology.
A legume-rich diet is often better for people as well as the planet. Tamar Haspell, author of the new book To Boldly Grow, notes that when people think of “healthy” food they should think of whole grains and legumes. Beans are full of fiber, whereas meat has none, so eating more beans and less meat can reduce your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
Legumes are also deeply rooted in history — lentils are the oldest crop known to humans.
Indigenous cultivation of legumes is basic to the nutritional survival of many groups around the world, including Europeans from the 10th century on. Pinto beans are the iconic staple of Tejano food, where frijoles negros (black beans) play that role in the Yucatán, Oaxaca, and Chiapas regions of Mexico, says chef Adán Medrano (author and producer of Truly Texas Mexican, featured in our 2021 Food Justice Film Festival). Beans are another chapter in the story of why the colonization of food is so painful and the decolonization of food an act of justice.
As I’ve written before, food has meaning for culture and history, ceremony and ritual, whether we’re cooking it, growing it or eating it. And rewilding our plates means more than foraging for wild mushrooms or growing vegetables to eat around the edges: The centerpiece of our meals needs to shift. Focusing on meat and dairy is a recent phenomenon, and realigning with a balanced diet — more legumes and whole grains — is a way to eat in harmony with the Earth.
Restoring a kinship with native wildlife is vital to how we think about growing food, and diets that celebrate beans and lentils help rebuild connections to nature.
In other news, the Center’s Grazing the Wild webinar series continues, with two panels on decolonizing our food systems. They will be available on our YouTube channel and social media platforms. You can also watch previous food panels, and be sure to check out our Food Justice Film Festival in the fall.
Write to me with your questions at EarthFriendlyDiet@BiologicalDiversity.org.
For the wild,
Jennifer Molidor, Senior Food Campaigner
Population and Sustainability Program
Center for Biological Diversity