People, Profiles

Lentils, a mighty force for improving the food system

By Carol Ness

Liz Carlisle talks about lentils, farming and transforming food systems. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Phil Ebiner)

Lentils probably aren’t going to knock bacon off the nation’s plates anytime soon. But “Lentil Underground,” a new book by a recent Ph.D. and ongoing researcher at UC Berkeley, makes the case that lentils — and similar legumes — could help restore American farmland and farmers whose soil and profits have been depleted by decades of industrial agriculture.

And, by the way, they’re delicious, cheap and good for you.

Liz Carlisle wrote the book, just out from Gotham Books, on her way to her degree in geography, from research into diversified farming that she did for her dissertation. A native of Montana, she dug into the culture of a small group of farmers there who started growing lentils as an answer to sustainability problems caused by America’s fabled fields of grain — corn and wheat, especially.

Unlike grains, lentils need no chemical fertilizers; in fact, they pull life-giving nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil. Growing them feeds both humans and the land. The farmers Carlisle followed were mocked by other wheat farmers around them, but ended up improving their land for all crops as well as creating a market for specialty lentils and a sustainable business now called Timeless Food .

“I think the next wave of the food movement is actually coming from the middle of the country, from some surprising spokespeople who might be Republican, home schoolers, churchgoers, who want to sustain their land for the next generation,” she told the NewsCenter in a video interview.

Carlisle found a key mentor in UC Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan , best known for his books promoting a more sustainable food system. Though she completed her degree last semester, she remains a fellow with Berkeley’s Center for Diversified Farming Systems .

“Berkeley is such a hotbed of interest in the food system, and I’ve been lucky to work with a number of people who are at the top of their field, working on food system issues — Michael Pollan, … faculty associated with the Berkeley Food Institute and the department of geography,” says Carlisle.

Pollan will introduce and interview Carlisle about her work on Feb. 5 at North Gate Hall, an event sponsored by the Berkeley Food Institute and the Berkeley Student Food Collective . It begins at 6:30 p.m.

You can read more about Carlisle and “Lentil Underground” in a recent California Magazine feature , and a review of her book in the San Francisco Chronicle .