As demand for African and Asian tree-based superfoods grows, researchers and entrepreneurs eye ways to maximize benefits for the environment.
It can seem like new health food fads pop up every week — fads that often fade as quickly as they appear. Two gaining steam lately, though, may be worth a longer look: baobab and moringa. Traditional fare in parts of Africa (and for moringa, Asia as well), these foods offer the potential not only to strengthen local economies, but to encourage conservation and carbon sequestration, too.
Time and again, when the world “discovers” a food previously consumed by a small pocket of the planet, global demand grows and production shifts from small and sustainable toward large-scale monoculture operations. In some cases, that ends up wreaking havoc on local ecosystems and spelling economic trouble for local producers and indigenous food supplies.
With baobab and moringa, though, some researchers say that growing global demand is gaining farmers a reliable market for crops they were often unable to sell before — and also helping the environment. These trees have a long history in the diets of many cultures, but they have grown in the wild and not been viewed as a crop for trade, giving farmers little incentive to grow them. Now, farmers are planting the trees.
And while the precise environmental benefits of the baobab and moringa planted so far are unknown, we do know that trees help improve soil structure and fertility — sometimes so significantly that yields of other crops also improve — and protect water ecosystems by filtering pollutants, reducing water runoff and, in some areas, reducing impacts of salinization by lowering the water table. They also often support bee and other pollinator populations, in addition to improving air quality and storing carbon.
Observers are hoping that baobab and moringa — if they ultimately do generate, and sustain, the expected economic and environmental benefits — can pave the way for a sustainable supply chain model that can be applied to other crops as well.
Tree of Life
The baobab tree is considered by many as one of Africa’s most iconic plants: It grows across much of the continent and has a distinct appearance with a majestically wide trunk and branches that look more like the tree’s root system growing toward the sky. Able to live more than a thousand years, the tree is known as the “tree of life” for its many uses, including as a source of food and medicine; the papaya-size fruit is packed with nutrients — more vitamin C than an orange, more calcium than milk, and minerals, including magnesium, potassium and iron — and the leaves are eaten as vegetables in parts of West Africa.
Despite its reputation as one of the continent’s most important trees, however, researchers are worried about its future. Few people cultivate it intentionally because they’ve never needed to, but deforestation and changes in land use, including industrial and tourism development, have reduced wild populations.
“People don’t necessarily know the full value of it, so they might make choices to cut it down, and that’s thousands of years worth of growth,” says Stepha McMullin, social scientist with the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre, or ICRAF.
ICRAF researchers and others believe that getting farmers in on the game of conservation will go a long way toward preserving a future for these unique trees, and that’s where the global market comes in. In general, crops grown for export or even larger regional markets fetch much higher prices than do crops grown for local markets; most farmers therefore would rather grow apples or mangoes, which are more commercially popular, than indigenous crops like baobab. But when the price they can get for baobab fruit goes up, farmers stop cutting the trees down and instead preserve them — and even start planting new ones.
PhytoTrade, a Botswana-based trade association representing southern African businesses, is one organization that has been working to bring baobab fruit and other crops to Europe, also with conservation in mind. The association’s goal is to help preserve indigenous biodiversity by boosting trade and creating sustainable, ethical supply chains that introduce baobab into products ranging from ice cream to cereal bars.
As the market for baobab has grown, PhytoTrade has seen producers — the vast majority of whom are small-scale women farmers — setting up tree nurseries and monitoring trees in local forests in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The growing market also creates incentive for programs like the South Africa–based Baobab Guardians, in which rural women plant and care for baobab seedlings and are then paid for trees that survive past the seedling stage.
The Value of Choice
Moringa, which grows in tropical areas from West Africa to India to the Caribbean, has a similar story to tell — even though it’s a drastically different type of plant, with tall, lean trunks, vibrant green leaves, which boast high levels of nutrients and antioxidants, and long seed pods (the tree’s fruit) that have long been used in some Indian cooking. One of the fastest-growing companies selling moringa leaf products in the U.S. was founded with the explicit intention of boosting the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, women in particular, who grow moringa in heavily deforested areas that stand to benefit from newly planted trees.
Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, started importing moringa in 2013 from women-led farming cooperatives in Ghana. Kuli Kuli has since expanded its sourcing to Haiti and most recently Nicaragua. The company’s presence and the long-term potential benefits of planting moringa trees stand to boost Haiti’s forest cover from a recent dismal low of 2 percent — something the country, the United Nations and other organizations have spent millions to try to do, with many of the efforts proving unsustainable in the long run. The problem planting other types of trees has faced, says Curtis, is “if the tree isn’t actually helpful to the local population, it becomes more valuable as charcoal than as a tree, so it gets cut down.”
Moringa is not the first food-producing tree farmers are being encouraged to grow in Haiti or elsewhere, but it may offer some of the strongest benefits. It is a rich source not just of vitamins and minerals including iron, but of protein, and it asks little of farmers who grow it. Moringa does well in a variety of soils, shows resistance to drought and disease — and, crucially for poor farmers, grows quickly, with leaves available to harvest just a few months after planting seed.
“I rarely use the term miracle, but I am willing to make an exception for moringa,” says Hugh Locke, president of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance, which works with farmer cooperatives to improve nutrition and contribute to reforestation in Haiti. “Not only has it got these unique nutritional properties — unique in the entire tree kingdom — but it requires very little moisture and very little nutrients. And the thing grows from seed to 13 feet in one year. So you’re able to get a return on planting the tree without having to wait.”
Moringa’s high nutrient content raises questions about whether it should be used as a main source of food for the families growing it rather than as an export. Curtis says she faces that question all the time, and thinks it’s a valid concern, but notes that in many areas, people aren’t eating it regularly anyway. The way Curtis sees it, outsiders who want to see moringa’s benefits realized can either tell local people to eat it because it’s good for them or create a reliable market for the crop and, hopefully, financially empower local people to improve their own nutrition in other ways. “One of those is a lot more compelling than the other,” she says.
Some observers even think this tension could be one of the strongest cases for building an export market in the first place: The food’s popularity elsewhere could end up increasing local consumption — and subsequently nutrition intake — as well.
Jed Fahey, director of the Cullman Chemoprotection Center at Johns Hopkins University, has studied moringa for two decades. He says in South Asia and Africa, “either it’s so common that it’s not cherished, or even in some places it’s a famine food, and of course famine foods are sort of disdained.” Building an export market, he says, “may enhance the value of it to locals, and they may take a second look at it, they may be more prone to use it — rather than ignore it or use it for fence posts or firewood.”
That could have profound benefits for people suffering from malnutrition. One study found, for example, that adding moringa to porridge may help malnourished children gain weight and recover from nutrient deficiencies more quickly.
When moringa is refined into a western superfood, however, its effects on health become less clear, cautions Mark Olson, professor of evolutionary biology at UNAM (Mexico’s national university) and one of the world’s top moringa researchers.
“The closer a product is to a fresh vegetable and farther from a hokey supplement or a medicine, the better,” he says, cautioning specifically against extracts and concentrates, which he calls “possibly dangerous” and “totally untested.” He advises people to shop at an international grocery store for frozen or fresh leaves instead.
Despite the promise these crops offer, increasing demand for baobab and moringa comes with ecosystems risks, too. Ramni Jamnadass, tree research project leader at ICRAF, points out that there has been such little research on the vast majority of indigenous crops, including baobab, that there’s no way to assess the sustainability or scale of current harvesting practices. Moringa, on the other hand, reproduces so easily and grows so quickly, it’s sometimes regarded as an invasive species. Because research is also scarce, there’s little evidence to suggest whether that should be a big concern.
And despite the optimistic view that Curtis and Fahey offer, encouraging people to sell a crop for export rather than benefiting from its nutritional value themselves still raises questions. “You have to be very careful that you do no harm, in terms of promoting it for its potential economic market, in particularly the international market,” says ICRAF’s McMullin. “Once you make something very valuable economically, it becomes out of reach for the communities who also can benefit from it, particularly from a nutritional point of view.”
There are also concerns that as demand increases, production will start to resemble monocultures — which can have a number of environmental consequences, including jeopardizing the crops themselves. Roger Leakey, former research director at ICRAF, explains that indigenous crops are naturally resistant to local pests and disease in part because of the diverse ecosystem in which they grow. “There are already all the bugs and beasties, who in the wild situation would only nibble at them — but if there’s this great feast suddenly presented to them, they will expand and devour the whole crop,” he says. “So we have to be very careful, if we start selling these things as international commodities, that people understand those sorts of risks. We need to think very carefully about how we would go about cultivating them.”
Olson agrees that moringa could face these risks — as will any crop. It points to “the global agricultural conundrum,” he says, and the real question is about global priorities. “We need to decide what we want as a society. Do we want short-term very high production, or do we want to bet on what we think will provide us with long-term stability? And that’s not just moringa.”
Meanwhile, promoters of other crops are also looking to encourage tree growth by developing international markets. Yerba mate, a traditional beverage in parts of South America made from the leaves of the South American holly tree that’s become popular in some western countries, grows in regions that are naturally rich in biodiversity, and some companies are using it to encourage local people to preserve native forest or reforest deforested areas. And Alice Muchugi, gene bank manager at ICRAF, says there are plenty of other traditional foods in Africa and around the world that could benefit from a global market — tamarind, safou, monkey orange (Strychnos cocculoides) and jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana), to name a few.
For Jamnadass, one of the most pressing challenges is getting the funding to study the trees’ benefits, cultivation methods, and the threats trees face, and to establish collaborations with farmers — because donors are often drawn to faster-growing crops.
“Trees are going to take their time … to grow. But then they’re there for a long, long time,” she says.