Moringa oleifera, a fast-growing tree species native to South Asia and widely cultivated, has been gaining prominence for a number of years in the health and wellness space. It is unusual among deciduous tree species in that the leaves are edible with high enough levels of nutrients to justify a superfood claim, and many other parts of the plant, which can grow into a small-to-medium size, are either edible or useful in health preparations.
The fast-growing Moringa tree is climate tolerant and can be cultivated to grow in many parts of the world. The leaves are commonly prepared and eaten as vegetables; the bark is used to make tea and for cooking fuel, and the seedpods release an oil for cooking. The flowers produce a very palatable honey and even the root is edible, tasting much like horseradish. Overflowing with vitamins and minerals, the Moringa leaves have 2 times the protein of yogurt, 3 times more potassium than bananas, 4 times more calcium than milk, 4 times more vitamin A than carrots, 7 times more vitamin C than oranges and 25 times the iron of spinach. In addition, Moringa leaves are packed with antioxidants and contain all the amino acids of meat, making giving the plant potential dietary supplement and has been used in beauty and weight loss products.
According to Dave Knight, who helps manage the company’s farming operations, New Global Energy came to the moringa supply space in a roundabout fashion. The company got its start in finding new and better ways to farm tilapia for market. In particular the company was focused on better nutrition for the fish. One employee involved in that effort had familiarity with Moringa from his youth in the Philippines, and suggested the company use the leaves of the trees as the basis for a fish feed.
“The company’s core business historically—and the company has been in business since 1993—has been aquaculture. Our operations are part of a small aquaculture industry that grew up in the Coachella Valley. You enjoy this rich desert sun which is great for growing plants and it’s a wonderful place to farm a tropical fish like tilapia,” Knight told NutraIngredients-USA.
“In 2005 and 2006 the domestic fish farm industry started to run into a huge rise in the price of fish feed and a rise in the cost of electricity: These are the two major cost components in raising farmed fish. It was necessary to rethink the business model to allow the production of fish in a different way that would be profitable and address the higher cost of feed. That’s when we decided to manufacture our own feed and become vertically integrated and gain control of that cost. We thought using moringa would both lower the cost and increase the nutrition value of the feed for the tilapia, which is a vegetarian fish,” he said.
Tea plantation as a model
New Global Energy planted 8,000 moringa trees at that time, Knight said. The experience it gained with that first plantation gave it some insight into how the plant performed under those growing conditions. One thing was clear: It grew incredible rapidly, easily reaching six feet in the first year. That gave Knight a clue for how to grow the plant more economically. He hit upon a plan to farm the plant much like a tea plantation, repeatedly cutting the vigorous new growth to maintain it as a bush that would grow at most to waist height. Tests in the intervening years showed the concept was practical, and would massively increase yields over the common practice of cultivating Moringa orchard-fashion.
“A typical density might be 5 feet apart in rows and 9 feet between the rows. If you do the math you get about 1,000 trees per acre. We are going to plant it in a much denser planting, about 400,000 trees per acre, and we are not going to wait for it to grow to six feet high. We are going to start cutting the leaves from the plant when it is about two feet high, and we will keep cutting them. Think of it more like mowing or trimming a hedge than harvesting in an orchard,” he said.
Knight said so far as he knows no one has tried this cultivation method with Moringa before. The company plans to plant about 1.2 million trees on three acres in the next few weeks. Knight said his tests show that the trees will support multiple cuttings per year, and that the tender new growth will be higher in nutritive value than the older leaves of more mature trees. He is forecasting annual yields of about 390,000 pounds in wet weight of leaves per acre per year.
Knight said New Global Energy is seeking strategic partners who would handle production of capsules based on the powdered ingredient. The plantation is being launched with the goal of eventual organic certification, which is made easier by the desert location with attendant lower threats from pests, weeds and fungal infections.