Championing the Moringa tree
Drought resistant, fast growing and filled with goodness, this leafy vegetable could be the solution to multiple nutritional problems
Could the humble drumstick tree (part of the genus Moringa) represent the future of food in the climate change era? For Professor Mark Olson, who teaches evolutionary biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the answer is a resounding yes, especially for the large human population that lives in dry tropical lattitudes around the world.The trees just happen to be packed with all kinds of good stuff. Its leaves contain large amounts of high quality protein (comparable to powdered milk, Olson says) and essential amino acids. Other nutritional benefits include four times more vitamin A than found in carrots and seven times more vitamin C than oranges. According to Olson, the evidence also suggests that the leaves have cancer-preventing properties and can help regulate glucose levels.

“The idea of bringing these benefits to such a large and important swath of the human population is what attracted me to Moringa,“ Olson says. “Depending on the local climate, with a plot of trees, you could meet the protein needs of your family at low cost.“

There are non-nutritional benefits too. The seeds can be pressed to make vegetable oil and the leftover seed cake can be used to purify drinking water. And they happen to withstand drought and grow rapidly -over six metres in a year. “They are generous plants,“ Olson says.

To provide a fillip to the scientific research into the Moringa, Olson has created the International Moringa Germplasm Collection, which is a farm that holds over 500 trees representing twelve of the 13 species from the genus Moringa (of which the drumstick tree, or Moringa oleifera, is one). Olson began his research on Moringa in 1995, when he was doing his PhD in evolutionary biology at Washington University in St. Louis.“There was a fair amount of applied research on Moringa -medicinal and industrial -but it was focused on the drumstick, on one species, and there was not much effort to survey the entire diversity systematically,“ he says The samples he collected remained at the university greenhouse for a decade before a prize from National Geographic gave Olson the financial wherewithal to buy a plot of land in perfect monsoonal, dry, tropical latitude in Mexico. Then, about three or four years ago, an organisation called Trees for Life, which is based in Wichita Kansas and was founded by Balbir Mathur (originally from Allahabad) provided additional funds to transplant the trees to Mexico and set up the farm.

The India connection doesn’t end there.Olson spent most of July in India trying to setup a mirror collection in the country. “India is the home of the most used species. It should be the epicentre of Moringa research,“ he says.To that end, Olson met with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in Delhi and is hopeful that an agreement will be signed by the end of the year.

Olson is also collaborating with Garima, a PhD student at the University of Delhi, who is studying the genetic diversity of Moringa. “We are trying to look for variations in different types of Moringa,“ she says, “so we can produce plants with the best genetic stock.“

Olson considers Garima’s work to be “the most important research being done on Moringa at the moment.“ He believes that the hot spots of Moringa genetic diversity lie in India. “We are trying to find the wild progenitor. Somewhere in India a few ancient agronomists selected some particularly succulent individuals and domesticated the drumstick that we now have in sambhar.“

His expectation was that the farm would serve as a base for high quality, global collaborative research into Moringa but that hasn’t quite happened. He believes there are two reasons for this: The first is that Moringa doesn’t offer anything new to those living in rich, temperate countries, and the second is that there isn’t emough funding for studying crops that would benefit villages in Mexico and India.

“It is a cruel fact of the global distribution of resources,“ he says.

But he remains hopeful that Moringa research will eventually overcome these obstacles, especially since feeding a growing global population in a climatically problematic future will require finding local food sources. Besides, eating more drumstick leaves can also help solve current problems such as child malnutrition. A recent report by the NGO Praja stated that one in three government school students in Mumbai were malnourished.

“Mumbai is the perfect climate for the tree,“ Olson says. “Imagine a society in which we can avoid brain stunting for an entire generation at low cost.“