Every so often, some foodstuff or other hits the headlines as being the new “superfood”, which will cure all ills, replace half the veggies you know and make you more attractive to the opposite sex besides. These claims usually turn out to be overhyped, of course; if you’re cynical enough, you might say that there’s nothing more to these reports than somebody trying to sell a new book.
This isn’t to say that actual, deliberate falsification takes place – there are laws, after all, and scientists who actually test these claims clinically. At the same time, it’s sometimes not a matter of what’s being said, but how the truth is presented that actually matters.
The Economics of Herbal Supplements
One effect of all this noise is that truly exciting and useful information sometimes ends up fading into the background. Another is that health news tends to be slanted towards expensive supplements rather than stuff you can plant in your garden. After all, there’s a lot more profit to be made from some weird herb found only in Bhutan than there is in extolling the virtues of parsley.
Something of this sort seems to have happened to moringa: it is too cheap to be taken seriously. Although quite a bit of credible information is available regarding its benefits, it remains far less popular than more widely publicized natural remedies.
Moringa in the South African Context
Although firmly in the Third World, South Africa isn’t critically impoverished. The main food security problem is therefore not starvation but malnutrition. Most of the population eat enough calories, especially in the form of a kind of maize porridge, but their diet is often poor aside from macronutrient content. What makes the situation worse is that diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis are endemic, meaning that weakened immune systems cause many more deaths than are needed.
Moringa oleifera is indigenous to Asia rather than Africa, but like many food plants is now grown around the world, especially in its preferred tropical habitat. The plant is fast-growing, resistant to drought and requires no particular infrastructure to farm, even if the soil is marginal at best.
The leaves and pods are both edible, while young branches are fed to livestock to improve herd health. The seeds actually have water-purifying properties, removing an estimated 98% of all contaminants. Plant parts can be dried without significant loss of its very impressive levels of calcium, potassium, vitamins, protein and antioxidants. If not eaten fresh, the dried leaves are often ground to a powder that can be used to supplement the nutritional content of ordinary meals. Several charitable projects are under way to supply more households and communities with their own moringa trees.
Amateur Moringa Cultivation
Unlike the case with most crops, a moringa farmer neither needs to plant anew at the start of every growing season, nor does he have to wait for the tree to bear fruit before harvesting.
The trees can be grown either from seeds or cuttings and can reach a height of 3 m (9 ft) within only a year. Pests seem to trouble this plant little, while it can be cultivated either with or without irrigation. It may be grown as a stand-alone tree, interspersed with other crops or highly intensively, with a spacing between adjacent plants of as little as 10 cm (4″).
Assuming that the soil is less fertile or that dependable irrigation is not available, wider spacings are preferred in practice. After allowing the plants to establish themselves, the trees are pruned to encourage bushy growth for easier harvesting of pods and leaves at need.
The first main harvest occurs when the trees have reached a height of about 1 m (3 ft). The trees are simply cut down to a third of their height. This, along with the subsequent stripping and drying of the leaves, represents the most labor-intensive part of moringa farming, and safety precautions such as special gloves are of course recommended.
After harvesting, new shoots develop at a simply amazing pace: harvests can be scheduled as little as two months apart. Whereas foreign aid has long been seen as the preferred solution to Africa’s food crisis, it seems that simply growing the right crop may go a long way to solving the problem.