How can Prosopis, a genus of trees numbering 44 species, help tackle food insecurity? On 24th May 2012 the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security of Coventry University held a meeting to discuss this question with an audience of researchers, aid agencies and NGOs.
Generally thought of as invasive in Africa and other parts of the world, its importance in South America dates back to pre-Hispanic times where it has been used as fuel, fodder and food. Indeed Prosopis in Spanish is algarrobo, originating from the word yrbol, which literally means tree.
In 1998, Garden Organic (formerly the Henry Doubleday Research Association) began leading an international team funded by DFID to investigate Prosopis. Prosopis trees are fast growing, nitrogen-fixing and salt and drought tolerant, making them ideal for semi arid and arid tropical regions. But this thorny invader can spread rapidly in drylands forming dense impenetrable thickets.
Despite its variety of uses and nutritional value (the pods are high in sugars, carbohydrates and protein) this multi-purpose tree is not utilised in many of the areas it inhabits, most notably in Africa. This is down to two reasons. Firstly, there exists so called negative press around its usage from the thorns causing limbs to become infected and require amputating to livestock who have been fed solely on Prosopis having all their teeth fall out, both of which are based on some truth. Secondly, it is very difficult to control and eradicate once established and it can have devastating effects reducing grazing lands, shading out native plant species and overrunning farmland. As such ecologists are working towards plans and projects to manage infestations, for example Farm Africa’s Afar Prosopis Management Project.
The Centre advocates a win-win route to reducing outbreaks of Prosopis while tackling food insecurity: control by utilisation. In some cases the private sector is involved. For example, RIOCON (Rio Farms Collected Accounts LTDA) are successfully marketing Prosopis (also known as Mesquite) as fodder for livestock in Brazil, with revenues of some £6 billion a year. But for Prosopis to be commercially and locally produced as a fuel and food source in Africa, consumer preferences and behaviour will have to change.
The plant may have made the journey across the Atlantic some 150 years ago but the indigenous knowledge that went with it did not. In the case of potatoes, it took a century until they were cultivated and another century until they became a food for the masses. Will we have to wait a century before the Prosopis becomes widely accepted as a food source?
The Centre have the data that shows the positive impact Prosopis can have as a food source in Kenya and Djibouti and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved Prosopis for human consumption, but what are the routes to mainstreaming this potentially valuable crop? It may not be a magic bullet in the fight to end hunger but perhaps by working with farmers, sharing information and some joint positive marketing strategies, it could become a staple and stable food source in Africa.
Katy Wilson, Ag4Impact