On the western margin of Agua Caliente, Mark Olson, a professor of evolutionary biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has a farm. “It may look like a shitty little field with runty little trees in a random little town, but it’s an amazing scientific resource,”
This is the world’s largest and most diverse aggregate of trees from the genus Moringa, which Olson believes are “uniquely suited to feeding poor and undernourished populations of the dryland tropics, especially in the era of climate change.”
Olson began to study Moringa in 1995, while he was getting his Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis.
With funding from the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society, he spent nearly two decades collecting the seeds of the tree’s thirteen known species, travelling throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Africa.
Moringa For Malnutrition
He began planting the farm in Agua Caliente two years ago, and his hope is to use the six hundred trees there to develop an optimal breed of Moringa—one that could become a staple food source in dry tropical regions all over the world.
According to David Lobell, the deputy director of Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, these regions are a nutritional hot zone. They are already home to at least two billion people, a figure that is expected to grow.
“If you look at climate models, the conditions are projected to intensify more than in most other climatic regions,” Lobell said. “So the already hot, dry climates will become really hot and really dry, relative to their current state.” Hot and dry are precisely the conditions in which the Moringa thrives.
“This is a plant so tenacious, resilient, versatile, generous, and flat-out eccentric as to be Dr. Seussian,” Olson said. “Nothing else in the plant kingdom really compares.”
And not only does it succeed in harsh conditions, it also grows weed-fast—about a foot per month, to a height of as much as twenty feet.
A Nutritional Powerhouse
Moringa oleifera, the most commonly farmed species, is a nutritional Swiss Army knife: it produces edible leaves that are unusually rich in protein, iron, calcium, nine essential amino acids, and Vitamins A, B, and C.
Jed Fahey, a biochemist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has collaborated with Olson on Moringa research for more than a decade, has found that the tree’s leaves and pods have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties, and may also contain enzymes that protect against cancer.
Mature Moringa seeds can be pressed for vegetable oil, and the seed cake that is left over can be used to purify drinking water. (It contains a protein that makes bacteria glom together and die.) When dried, crushed seeds can also serve as a good fertilizer.
As an agricultural crop, the tree does have its drawbacks. The broad genetic variation within Moringa oleifera has made it hard to cultivate efficiently on big farms, where crop uniformity is critical for ease of care and harvest.
Moreover, its leaves are smaller and more delicate than baby spinach, and are prone to wilting after they are picked—a challenge for farmers who can’t chill their produce.
And Moringa’s limitations are culinary, too. Its leaves, like cilantro, taste best when removed from their chewy stems, a tedious process when cooking large quantities.
Both the leaves and the pods contain an oil that gives them a bold, peppery flavor—like arugula, but stronger—which can be off-putting to some palates.
The New Kale
For now, Moringa is gaining more popularity among wealthy, Western superfood enthusiasts than among the underserved populations of the dry tropics.
Powdered Moringa leaves have become a trendy ingredient in power bars and smoothies in recent years.
However, Olsen says “Trumpeting dried Moringa as the cure du jour for people in the rich West misses the real potential of this plant."
He sees Moringa as a kind of anti-superfood—not something to be frittered away as a luxury supplement, like açaí berries sprinkled on oatmeal, but to be used as a staple, an essential form of sustenance.
Fahey agreed. “When you look at maps of the areas in the world where Moringa grows, and then at maps where populations are undernourished, it’s amazing—they almost exactly overlap,” he told me. And, given the pressures of climate change, this correlation may strengthen in the coming decades.
Whether or not this humanitarian vision succeeds, Olson’s Moringa research has already begun to generate scientific value, in particular his investigation into the tree’s mechanisms for harnessing and storing groundwater, and for moving water into its leaves.
This research on what Olson calls Moringa’s “ingenious plumbing” may help climate scientists and forest ecologists understand how other trees will and could behave in increasingly water-scarce conditions.
Even if Moringa doesn’t manage to trump kale, it may hold a key to surviving the hotter, drier days to come.
This is an excerpt from an article in the New Yorker.