Superfood fads: Super distracting for global farmers?

You may be sick of hearing about the virtues of foods like kale and blueberries. Superfoods, they're called -- so nutritious they're life-changing. But often they end up as fads. In a sense, this is happening in the developing world, too. Organizations have been promoting certain crops as panaceas to alleviate hunger and poverty. But they don't always work out.

Rosie Cabantac's farm is in Pangasinan, a northwestern province. It's an area known for rice. A few years ago, she started adding a tree called moringa. She heard about its potential: nearly every part, from roots to flowers, is edible or thought to be medicinal.

"Good for your body," she says. "Also, good medicine. Also, good for money!"

Cabantac says her monthly income doubled since she added about two and a half acres of moringa trees to her farm.

Moringa is one of many of these so-called superfoods. There's the grain, amaranth. The smelly jackfruit. Trendy quinoa. Even mungbean. If only farmers planted more of these, proponents say, hunger and poverty could be eased around the world.

"One tree can change a family's life for generations," said Josh Schneider, managing partner at Global Breadfruit, a company trying to get farmers to replace some staple crops with breadfruit trees. The fruit is more like a potato and can be made into french fries and flour. Gluten-free, of course.

"Tropical farmers can dominate this market," he said, "and it can really help grow their economies and lift these countries up out of poverty."

This gets at one of the biggest debates in international agriculture. On one side are people like Schneider, who believe that the secret to reducing hunger is to promote new and niche crops. On the other side are skeptics like William Masters: "People need to find the bright new thing to chase after," he said. 

Masters is chairman of the Food and Nutrition Policy Department in the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts. He says more often than not, so-called miracle crops like moringa or breadfruit are distractions. "Why [is] it that it didn't get identified as a huge success previously?" 

In other words, it's not like farmers haven't tried many of these crops before. Farmers experiment. They'll plant something new, and see how it does. And, over the years, many of these so-called superfoods failed for the most mundane of reasons. They take too long to grow, require too much labor or are prone to pests. It's not as easy to spread breadfruit as wheat.

"That search across all the available biodiversity has been going on for thousands of years," Masters said, "and it's led to a system that has found a half dozen or dozen major species that feed the world. And that's because those major species have some pretty amazing characteristics."

You know these: wheat, corn, rice and the like. Governments, foundations, and colleges should spend their money and time improving what farmers are already growing, he said.

That's not to say a niche crop can't ever explode and become a big part of the world's diet. Soybeans used to be regional. But in the last century, changes in breeding made it possible to grow them all over.

All of this comes down to economics. Do these new crops have a market, both at home and for export? Will fads lead crops to rise and fall? Moringa may be about to have its moment, winding up in teas and even bath gels.

Moringa facial oil.

Moringa facial oil.

That's partly why Cabantac, the farmer in the Philippines, is so excited.

"Eat more moringa!" she said. "Plant more moringa! And, that's it!"

Even so, she isn't betting the farm on moringa. Most of her acres still grow a boring old staple: rice.

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