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.
Baobab fruit is a rich source of vitamins, minerals and calcium. Photo credit: Ollivier Girard / Center for International Forestry Research / Flickr
“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,” said Stepha McMullin, social scientist with the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre (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,” said 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 said.
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 said, 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,” said 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 said. “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 said 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 said.
Rachel Cernansky is a Denver-based freelance journalist, primarily covering the environment, social justice and nutrition. Her work has been published by The New York Times, National Geographic News, Grist, The Christian Science Monitor, 5280 (The Denver Magazine), Real Simple, Nutrition Business Journal, The Colorado Independent, The Daily Camera, Dowser, Satya and others.
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A Landing Like a James Bond Movie<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIwMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MDU5MDQ2Nn0.aLE-s5r9YhoJs40XbavhUwUXdY97iykXqo0OO0S5eso/img.jpg?width=980" id="19fa1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c758d3cd0d3e11fbd5290bb95da86396" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="700" data-height="394" />
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The Long Wait for James Webb<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIxMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2OTM1MDUzNX0.0Jmw-vIz6zuOa7eNsVX2oVzc0L6AFp05cAs4QbzdK6c/img.jpg?width=980" id="9cf3e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d46a2f73a4a2e32a9775087750c92431" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="700" data-height="394" />
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A Sensitive German Camera<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyOTIxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTE0MzY3Mn0.o3aPaW5t0MFkEgeJl0HQ1V9lz6WDxKVGXyYWvpfoYyk/img.jpg?width=980" id="6ff49" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="187458ae2291c2aeb3bd36bc1ed777e0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="985" data-height="657" />
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Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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