Federal Highway 200 snakes some fourteen hundred miles down the Pacific coast of Mexico, past volcanoes, craggy mountains, pitchfork cacti, and cattle ranches with skulls on their barbed-wire fences. Somewhere between Tepic and Tapachula, the road reaches Nueva Agua Caliente, a town named for its hot springs, which bubble into a stream at the center of a deep valley. 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,” Olson said, as he led me through the hilly, hardscrabble acre that constitutes the International Moringa Germplasm Collection. 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 grew up on the edge of Tahoe National Forest, in California, where his father worked as a civil engineer for the U.S. Forest Service. He has pale blue eyes and wispy, sand-colored hair, and he wears a leather cowboy hat that makes him look equal parts Teddy Roosevelt and Crocodile Dundee. 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. 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.” Although the Moringa is neither striped nor candy-colored, it does bear a certain resemblance to the truffula tree, with its smooth, skinny trunk and affably chaotic branches, which protrude like hands waving hello. 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. 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. Its seedpods, which are as thick as the meaty part of a drumstick and about a foot long, are also high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. 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. In India, where Moringa was first domesticated, two thousand years ago, the pods are commonly used in a popular dish called sambhar, which subdues their flavor in a rich gravy. (Olson prepared tacos with parboiled Moringa leaves, queso blanco, and salsa, which I found delicious, but the raw leaves, straight from the tree, were hard to swallow.) When I asked a local farmer in Agua Caliente whether his family eats Moringa, which grows in the yards of many houses around town, he replied, “Es ayuda contra el hambre”—it’s a famine food, a last resort.
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. “We’re hoping Moringa becomes the new kale,” Lisa Curtis, the twenty-eight-year-old founder of Kuli Kuli, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in Moringa snack bars, powders, and energy shots, told me. The Kuli Kuli Web site, which refers to Moringa alternately as a “miracle tree” and a “supergreen,” states that the plant roundly outperforms kale, with “2 x protein, 4 x calcium, 6 x iron, 1.5 x fiber, 97 x vitamin B12.” (Olson said that he hasn’t seen data to support these nutritional claims, but that the nutrient profile of Moringa oleifera “does at least rival or exceed that of milk, yogurt, and eggs, serving for serving.”) Superfood fans are already biting: this past year, Whole Foods began carrying Kuli Kuli’s products nationwide. According to Curtis, the company sold a million dollars in Moringa products in the first six months of 2016.
Olson is skeptical of the Moringa fad within wealthy health-food enclaves. “Trumpeting dried Moringa as the cure du jour for people in the rich West misses the real potential of this plant,” he said. 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.
In the long run, Olson does not envision Moringa becoming a major industrial row crop like maize or soy. Instead, he sees it taking root on a community and single-family scale. Many of the tree’s practical challenges, he pointed out, can be solved by breeding a more genetically consistent, user-friendly variety—selecting for milder flavor and maximum protein and vitamin content, for heartier leaves and more tender stems. He is also recruiting local chefs in Agua Caliente, where he spends several months a year, to develop Moringa recipes and educate their neighbors on the tree’s nutritional value. Once Olson has finished his breeding research, he plans to develop a program that will distribute seeds for communities to grow “protein plots,” with about twenty trees per family, throughout the dryland tropics—which, over time, could establish a drought-resilient food supply for the populations that need it most.
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.
Amanda Little is a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University and writes about energy, food, and the climate.