Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Can Superfoods Help Boost the Planet's Health, Too?

Can Superfoods Help Boost the Planet's Health, Too?

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. Photo credit: Marekuliasz / Shutterstock

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.

Read page 1

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.

Farmers plant moringa seedlings in Zambia. Photo credit: Jacqui Wintle / Flickr

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.

Environmental Risk

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.


50 Billionaires Receive $6.3 Million in Federal Farm Subsidies

GMO Mushroom Sidesteps UDSA Regulations

These 10 Superfoods Can Help Balance Your Hormones and Reduce Inflammation

Is the Seafood You Eat Caught by Slaves?

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

An aerial view taken on August 8, 2020 shows a large patch of leaked oil from the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius. STRINGER / AFP / Getty Images

The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.

On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.

France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.

The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.

"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."

Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.

By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.

The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.

"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.

Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

A northern mockingbird on June 24, 2016. Renee Grayson / CC BY 2.0

Environmentalists and ornithologists found a friend in a federal court on Tuesday when a judge struck down a Trump administration attempt to allow polluters to kill birds without repercussions through rewriting the Migratory Treaty Bird Act (MBTA).

Read More Show Less
A spiny dogfish shark swims in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Washington. NOAA / Wikimedia Commons

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

There are trillions of microplastics in the ocean — they bob on the surface, float through the water column, and accumulate in clusters on the seafloor. With plastic being so ubiquitous, it's inevitable that marine organisms, such as sharks, will ingest them.

Read More Show Less
A "vessel of opportunity" skims oil spilled after the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. NOAA / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Loveday Wright and Stuart Braun

After a Japanese-owned oil tanker struck a reef off Mauritius on July 25, a prolonged period of inaction is threatening to become an ecological disaster.

Read More Show Less
The Mountain Valley Pipeline proposes to carry natural gas for hundreds of miles over dozens of water sources, through protected areas and crossing the Appalachian Trail. Appalachian Trail Conservancy / YouTube

It's been a bad summer for fracked natural gas pipelines in North Carolina.

Read More Show Less
Atlantic puffins courting at Maine Coastal Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2009. USFWS / Flickr

When Europeans first arrived in North America, Atlantic puffins were common on islands in the Gulf of Maine. But hunters killed many of the birds for food or for feathers to adorn ladies' hats. By the 1800s, the population in Maine had plummeted.

Read More Show Less


Rescue workers dig through the rubble following a gas explosion in Baltimore, Maryland on Aug. 10, 2020. J. Countess / Getty Images

A "major" natural gas explosion killed two people and seriously injured at least seven in Baltimore, Maryland Monday morning.

Read More Show Less