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A Common Tree With Rare Power

COLUMN ONE

Moringa's potential as diet aid, water purifier is seen as boon to hunger fight. It's cheap, full of nutrients and a known quantity in much of the developing world.

March 27, 2000|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scientifically speaking, Moringa sounds like magic. It can rebuild weak bones, enrich anemic blood and enable a malnourished mother to nurse her starving baby. Ounce for ounce, it has the calcium of four glasses of milk, the Vitamin C of seven oranges and the potassium of three bananas.

Sounds like your Power Bar, you say? Well, consider this: A dash of Moringa can make dirty water drinkable. Doctors use it to treat diabetes in West Africa and high blood pressure in India. Not only can it staunch a skin infection, Moringa makes an efficient fuel, fertilizer and livestock feed.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 30, 2000 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Moringa trees--In Monday's Column One story about the Moringa plant, the name of the Malunggay tree was misspelled.

Memo to Popeye: Moringa has triple the iron of spinach and more impressive attributes than olive oil. And it's not only good for you, it's delicious. You can cook Moringa in Moringa oil and top it with Moringa sauce and still taste a spectrum of flavors.

And it's cheap enough to grow on trees. Which is what Moringa oleifera is: A tree, with a gnarly trunk and tousled head of foliage that make it look like a cypress that just rolled out of bed. It is a common tree that thrives in both the desert and the living room and produces leaves, pods, seeds and flowers that each do uncommon things.

"It's a remarkable tree," said Lowell Fuglie, West Africa director for Church World Service, the relief arm of the National Council of Churches. "Among academics, the properties have been known for years. We decided to put it to the test."

The organization recently convinced the nation of Senegal to promote Moringa as part of the national diet. This came after a two-year pilot project in the hardscrabble villages in the Senegalese southwest, where Moringa grows wild.

Plant's Following Begins to Build

Fuglie found ground Moringa leaves to be more readily embraced by rural villagers than other dietary aids, plus four times as effective. "I couldn't believe what was happening," he said.

Malnutrition causes high infant mortality and a staggering array of health problems among an estimated 1 billion people. Though experts doubt a single food source can be a silver bullet in the war on hunger, Moringa has built an increasingly larger following in the last two years. More people are noticing that the plant is a proven water purifier with remarkable nutritional and medicinal properties that just happens to thrive in places where bad water, poor diets and the diseases they promote are leading killers.

Scientists who study this gifted bit of flora also consider it an outstanding example of what has been lost in many other plants and animals: a genetic versatility bred away by huge agribusinesses.

Many argue that a lack of genetic variation in the food we eat makes specific strains more susceptible to getting wiped out by a single pest, pathogen or climatological change. In 1970, 15% of the U.S. corn crop was destroyed when blight swept the grain belt. In the mid-19th century, the Irish potato crop crashed, causing famine that killed a million people. The reason? Dominant plant varieties were too genetically alike and therefore vulnerable to the same enemy.

"There are probably a lot of plants [other than Moringa] that have the same benefits," said Barbara Schaal, an expert on evolutionary plant genetics at Washington University in St. Louis. "That's why it's so important to preserve natural biodiversity. Corn and soybean, all of these things have incredible potential. But we've lost a lot of their wild relatives."

At the same time, herb-happy consumers are gobbling up candy-coated nutrient bars crammed with everything from pine bark to bioflavonoids. Yet Moringa is a reminder of what nature can do.

Here are some examples of how the plant is picking up a devoted following:

* The National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society and the Andrew Mellon Foundation are financing a scientist's hair-raising attempts to collect the world's 13 Moringa species.

* Both Moringa and the common carrot are diamonds in the roughage department, but Moringa has quadruple the beta carotene, which is good for the eyes and effective against cancer. The Bethesda, Md.-based International Eye Foundation is using Moringa in Malawi because it's loaded with Vitamin A, the lack of which causes 70% of childhood blindness.

* Wichita, Kan.-based Trees for Life, which has been planting food-bearing trees in impoverished places since 1984, is running Moringa cultivation programs in India after convincing a town of 40,000 to make the tree a structured part of the local diet.

* Britain's University of Leicester is studying the coagulating properties of the seeds in those tasty Moringa pods, which researchers believe work better than the common water purifier aluminum sulfate, which can be toxic. The school weaned a Malawi village off imported alum by building a simpler Moringa-based system.

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