Commoditizing plants as fad foods isn’t a new concept. Countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have a long history of undermined food systems or nutritional instability and yet export large shares of their agricultural goods, while the United States imports more than it exports. According to 2019 data, the fifth-largest import category in the U.S. was food, feeds, and beverages at $151 billion.1 In 2017 the United States imported a total of 81,442 plant foods and 34,048 animal foods. 2
The United States Department of Agriculture notes the following:
U.S. consumers demand variety, quality, and convenience in the foods they consume. As Americans have become wealthier and more ethnically diverse, the American food basket reflects a growing share of tropical products, spices, and imported gourmet products. Seasonal and climatic factors drive U.S. imports of popular types of fruits and vegetables and tropical products, such as cocoa and coffee. In addition, a growing share of U.S. imports can be attributed to intra-industry trade, whereby agricultural-processing industries based in the United States carry out certain processing steps offshore and import products at different levels of processing from their subsidiaries in foreign markets.
Further harm is created by offshore labor exploitation and the loss of potential exploration of agricultural innovation (research on what works here and federal funding for food growers), job creation, and decreased food production costs (locally sourced foods).
Famine Foods Repackaged as Fad Superfoods
New business trends in Western societies, and noticeably here in the United States, are to market and capitalize on other countries’ staple foods. These foods are often experimental crops that are brought into new areas to stabilize and address the lack of food, nutrition, and access to healthcare in developing nations. The Drumstick Tree, or Moringa, is one such plant. But moringa began to draw national attention in the US in 2018, the most recent addition in a long line of fad foods like quinoa, chia, acai berries and matcha.
It is easy to grow from seeds or cuttings, grows fast, tolerates harsh weather (including heat and drought), and has tons of nutritional and medicinal value. Its edible leaves are rich in protein, iron, calcium, nine essential amino acids, and Vitamins A, B, and C. Its seedpods are also high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Medicinally, both the tree’s leaves and pods have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties and its seeds are antibacterial and can be used to purify water. While it is the latest fad here, purchased by wealthy health-food enthusiasts, real undernourished people are relying on it to meet their basic needs.3
Jed Fahey, a biochemist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has collaborated with professor of evolutionary biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mark Olson, on Moringa research for more than a decade, stated, “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.” It is unlikely the U.S. will opt to industrially fund Moringa which means most of the supply is exported from those very countries that need it most. Additionally, it is considered invasive in Florida and the same reason it is easy to grow makes it a danger to plant.45.
Meanwhile, in the United States, we see growing inequities to food and medical access for Native American, Black, and Latinx communities. There are also rising numbers of food-linked diseases, for example diabetes, among communities of color.6 Why not divest from importing foreign grown foods and invest in healthy local equivalents?
Ethics to Consider When Using of Moringa
There are several examples of ethically motivated reasons to plant, grow, and use moringa in the United States.
- Climate conditions prohibit or create barriers to growing alternatives. For example in arid parts of the U.S. where the tree would not be invasive and growing the plant would create an ethical local supply.
- When the benefits of addressing food scarcity/insufficiency outweigh the costs. For example, groups organizing to address hunger without the use of federal dollars and needing to make the most of their limited resources.
- As a culturally-specific staple. For example, the Dent Street community garden, here in Leon County, features a row of Moringa trees specifically grown primarily for immigrant Congolese families.
- Buy ethically from local suppliers. Because of how quickly it grows here, moringa is an economic opportunity for local farmers in Tallahassee and across North Florida. Buy moringa leaves and powder from local farms directly at farmers markets or from the Red Hills Online Market to be sure you’re supporting local sustainable agriculture.
Harm Reduction if Growing Moringa in Florida
If you have your mind set on growing Moringa in Florida, consider these harm reduction strategies for environmental care.
- Plant it as a container plant, if possible.
- Plant it away from sources of water (to avoid accidental dispersal of seeds via waterways).
- You MUST trim these trees regularly. It helps with leaf production and it also helps keep the tree manageable. Dispose of trimmings in yard bags or burn.
- Pick all seed pods and use or dispose of in yard bags/burn.
- Just don’t plant it, plant a native instead and support local ethical Moringa suppliers.
Alternatives to Fad Foods
Blueberries, blackberries or strawberries.
Note: many of our more common berry fruits are nutritional, more readily available, cheaper, and do not take away from the people of the Amazon rainforest.
Flaxseed, kiwi fruit seeds, oily fish, sunflower seeds.
Note: Oily fish is the best source of Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) but if you are vegan or vegetarian chia can be helpful in increasing your Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) intake (and therefore your DHA).
Chinese cabbage, Romain lettuce, spinach, watercress, or any dark green leafy vegetable.
Note: Chinese cabbage, Romain lettuce, spinach, and watercress are all more nutritious than kale.
Green or black tea.
A healthy balanced diet, with lots of fresh greens.
Note: Moringa is particularly not recommended for pregnant and nursing mothers (parts of the tree can cause miscarriage) and can also lower blood sugar too much.
Oats, legumes like lentils and chickpeas
Alternative Greens to Grow or Forage in Florida
Apache, Arapaho, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ouachita, and Kiowa. Fresh or dried leaves can be brewed into teas and the tiny, young, fresh stems, before they get thorns can be added to salads.
Bravo, Bronco, Rio Verde, Flat Dutch, Round Dutch, Wakefield types, Copenhagen Market, and Savoy Red Acre.
Right Lights, Fordhook Giant, and Red Ruby.
Napa, Michihili, bok choy, baby bok choy, joi choi, pak-choi, or the pak-choi hybrid called toy choi.
Georgia Southern, Morris Heading, Top Bunch, and Vates.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
This highly nutritious weed grows in fields and anywhere with disturbed soil and decent sun. Dandelion leaves, flowers, and roots are all edible!
Crisphead, butterhead, leaf and romaine (leaf does the best.
Muscadine Leaves /Summer grape (Vitis rotundifolia)
Muscadine leaves can be used just like European grape leaves and grow wild through a lot of north Florida.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.1)
Grows wild in Florida and can be consumed raw, cooked, or even pickled. Mucilaginous like okra and mildly acidic in flavor, it is versatile to different flavorings. It has the reputed health benefits of having omega-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, carotenoids, and B-complex vitamins
Spanish Needle (Bidens Alba)
Good potherb (eaten cooked) that is available year round in all of Florida.
Bloomsdale, Virginia Savory, Melody, Malabar, Tyee, Olympia and Longstanding
Stinging Nettle (Urtica chamaedryoides)
Forage these stinging weeds from moist areas in the Spring or the Fall. Wear gloves and soak, cook, refrigerate, wilt or dry them to neutralize the sting.
There are many species of wild lettuce that can be found in Florida. It is usually recommended that they are cooked, particularly if they have milky white sap. Lactuca floridana is one such variety.
Alternative Medicinal Plants
While the medicinal value of Moringa is currently under study, it has a long history of use that dates back to 150 BC. Ancient Indian, Greek, and Egyptian civilizations all left evidence of its use. 78. Other, more widely available medicinal alternatives that do not pose a nutritional threat to the places moringa is grown, can be used.
Aloe, Bitter Melon, Black tea, Caper, Cinnamon, Cocoa, Coffee, Fenugreek, Garlic, Ginger, Green tea, Guava, Gymnema, Japanese Thistle, Milk Thistle, Mint, Mimosa, Nettle. Loquat, Nopal, Peppermint, Pepperweed, Purslane, Sage, Sea Grape, Turmeric, Walnut, Yerba Mate
For Rheumatoid Arthritis
Aloe, Cinnamon, Borage seed oil, Boswellia serrata, Cat’s claw, Devil’s claw, Eucalyptus, Feverfew, Garlic, Ginger, Green tea, Indian frankincense, Thunder god vine, Thyme, Turmeric, Willow bark extract
|↑1||Amadeo, K. (2020, July 9). US Imports and Exports with Components and Statistics: What does the United States trade with foreign countries? The balance: Trade Policy.|
|↑2||USDA. Summary data on annual food imports, values and volume by food category and source country, 1999-2017.|
|↑3||Little, A. (2016). Meet the Moringa Tree, an Overqualified, Underachieving Superfood. The New Yorker.|
|↑4||Hobbs, W. (2018). The not-so miraculous tree|
|↑5||Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas. University of Florida, IFAS|
|↑6||Union of Concerned Scientists. (2016) The Devastating Consequences of Unequal Food Access:The Role of Race and Income in Diabetes.|
|↑7||Anwar F, Latif S, Ashraf M, Gilani AH. Moringa oleifera: a food plant with multiple medicinal uses. Phytother Res. 2007 Jan;21(1):17-25. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2023. PMID: 17089328.|
|↑8||Senthilkumar, A., Karuvantevida, N., Rastrelli, L., Kurup, S. S., & Cheruth, A. J. (2018). Traditional Uses, Pharmacological Efficacy, and Phytochemistry of Moringa peregrina (Forssk.) Fiori. -A Review. Frontiers in pharmacology, 9, 465. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2018.00465|
|↑9||Salehi, B., Ata, A., V Anil Kumar, N., Sharopov, F., Ramírez-Alarcón, K., Ruiz-Ortega, A., Abdulmajid Ayatollahi, S., Tsouh Fokou, P. V., Kobarfard, F., Amiruddin Zakaria, Z., Iriti, M., Taheri, Y., Martorell, M., Sureda, A., Setzer, W. N., Durazzo, A., Lucarini, M., Santini, A., Capasso, R., Ostrander, E. A., … Sharifi-Rad, J. (2019). Antidiabetic Potential of Medicinal Plants and Their Active Components. Biomolecules, 9(10), 551. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom9100551|