Replacing Imported Staples with Perennial Desert Substitutes

Replacing Imported Staples with Perennial Desert Substitutes

The people in Al Baydha have two significant problems when it comes to food.  First, very little of their food is produced locally, and second, their diet is significantly lacking.

This is what most folks eat in Al Baydha:

breakfast:  white bread, a few olives, cream cheese, honey, dates, and Arabic coffee.

Lunch:  Rice with plain Kefir

Dinner:  Either a repeat of breakfast or lunch, but perhaps with  chicken.

All day:  Tea with sugar.

Additionally, once or twice a month, people will choose to eat lamb or goat, or they will be invited to a party where local lamb or goat is served.  Oftentimes they will have raised these animals themselves.  Camel’s milk is also available to those who keep camels, which is either drunk raw and fresh, or mixed with tea.  Not surprisingly for a group of ex-nomads, their most nutritious staples are still from their animals.  However, those animals, if not fed imported alfalfa and grains, do not survive.

A Ramadan Iftar, considered the best meal of the year.

A Ramadan Iftar, considered the best meal of the year.

 

Thus the majority of their calories is coming from bread and rice, and the more nutritious foods are their dairy, dates, olives, and meat.  Only the dates are local.  I consider the meat half-way local because one one hand, the animals are living in Al Baydha, but on the other, the animals are only alive because they are eating imported alfalfa and barley.  So it almost doesn’t count.  I consider the dairy to be the same–locally produced but 100% dependent on imports for production.  The rice is from India, the United States, or Japan.  Some of the wheat is locally grown, but next year all subsidies for wheat growers will cease, at which point, Saudi Arabia intends to import ALL its wheat (which is a water-wise decision).  The tea is lipton or a local brand, most likely grown in Kenya.

To be fair, it would be sheer lunacy to try to produce all that stuff here in the desert, simply because the water is not available, and those things are not suitable for growing here.  The point of a good permaculture design is to answer what the land would like to be, not what can be imposed on it in the short term with no eye to long term consequences.

Can we replace these imported staples with local perennial plants and do it in a water-sustainable way? And can we do it at scale?

I think the answer is yes, but it would take a long time for them to be adopted.  .  While most desert peoples in the past were either nomadic pastoralists or nomadic hunter gatherers, neither of those options is available anymore.  Yet there are plants from other desert peoples that can be used here to replace staples.  Particularly, I am thinking of the mesquite pod as a replacement for wheat, Moringa and Mongongo as replacements for  oils and nuts, restored perennial grassland and tree-based grazing plants, agave and honey for sweeteners, hibiscus for tea, and a host of other plants providing drought-hardy, heat-loving desert fruits and vegetables.

So here are the objectives of the food forest we’re trying to design:

1:  replace imported annuals with local perennials

2:  Get the local perennials established as a cogent ecology.

3:  Provide all needed food (so must have fat and protein-heavy sources) and nutrition (significant vegetable and fruit production).

Here’s how we can do it:

BREAD

Bread is a staple of human civilization and has been for thousands of years.  Saudi Arabia is about to become totally 100% dependent on wheat imports for bread and pasta production, which is water-wise.  How can we produce a substitute for bread?  The answer is in this pod:

A pod from prosopis juliflora ie mesquite

A pod from prosopis juliflora ie mesquite

Mesquite (Prosopis) is not native to the Middle East but it is quite common now.  Both the prosopis cineraria and the prosopis juliflora are common in the gulf region, and even viewed as invasive (read: thrives).  What many people do not know is that mesquite pods were a staple crop for native peoples in the American Southwest, and can be ground into a naturally gluten-free flour.  Additionally, the sap is useful for medicine, and green pods can be used to make a molasses.  Check out Mark Moody’s farm in the video:


These trees require no more than 5 liters per week to get established.  While their roots can go very deep and have been the main culprit in some area’s falling water tables, they are also known to perform hydraulic redistribution, which means they can keep nearby shallow soils wetter in dry times, thus helping nearby foliage to survive drought.  More study would have to be done and breeding would be done to maximize production and taste, but this could replace imported wheat as the main ingredient in bread.

2:  Proteins and Fats

While the preferred source of protein and fat here is easily red meat (particularly sheep and goat), the current system of grazing animals for one month or two out of the year, and providing imported alfalfa, barley, and straw for the other 10 months, is completely unsustainable.  Forage trees need to form a large part of the design, both as a way to meet the need for meat and dairy production (from camel and goat’s milk).  But there are two other trees as well that are drought, salt, and heat tolerant, and are known to produce large amounts of nuts.  Here I am talking about the Mongongo (Schinziophyton rautanenii) and the Drum Stick Tree or Ben Oil Tree (Moringa Peregrina).  Additional to the Moringa Peregrina, the Moringa Olefeira could also adapt as a forage and vegetable tree.

 

The Moringa Peregrina, or Arabian Moringa.

The Moringa Peregrina, or Arabian Moringa.

The Arabian Moringa is native to this region, but almost totally ignored, which is a shame because it has enormous potential.  This is the tree responsible for the famous “Ben Oil” which was used by Romans, Egyptians, and Persians, as the basis for much of their medicines, perfumes, and cosmetics.  The oil is produced from seeds that come from pods like those in the picture:

Moringa Peregrina Seed Pods

Moringa Peregrina Seed Pods

The oil from this tree is not only delicious, versatile, and widely applicable, but very expensive.  According to a Moringa farmer I spoke with from Madina, he has sold the oil for as much as $1000 USD per LITER.   It could grow across the entire Arabian Peninsula as a sub-story tree, providing vegetables (the pods are edible), oil, and animal fodder (from the crushed oil-less pods).  Then we wouldn’t have to buy hydrogenated vegetable oils produced from annuals half-way around the world.

 

After the Moringa, and I can’t even decide which of these two trees is cooler, is the Mongongo, the staple food of the Kalahari Bushman.  This tree grows on top of sand-dunes in a latitude and climate almost exactly the same as the Makkah/Jeddah region.  Bill Mollison was reportedly rebuffed when trying to teach gardening to the !Kung, “Why should we garden, when there are so many mongongo trees in the world?”

Nuts growing on a Mongongo Tree (source: biodiversityexplorer.org)

Nuts growing on a Mongongo Tree (source: biodiversityexplorer.org)

The nuts on these trees are 57% fat by weight, 24% protein by weight, and are rich in calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and vitamin E.  There is an external layer that can be made into a jelly or a preserve and the nuts themselves are eaten plain, used to produce oil (which is sold in cosmetics and skin treatments), or roasted.  They are reportedly a favorite of elephants, which makes me wonder if camels could get at them.  One tree can produce hundreds of kilograms of nuts in a good year.  If any reader can help me get some mongongo nuts, I will plant them in Saudi Arabia and we will start growing a more resilient, water-wise local food source!

Mongongos could be a major staple crop overstory in an extremely arid food forest.

Mongongos could be a major staple crop overstory in an extremely arid food forest.

These are two of the main crops that could grow as members of a food forest here in Saudi Arabia, that could be used to replace imported staples such as wheat and rice.  Next we’re going to get into a more varied diet that can grow here in a water-sustainable way and replace other aspects of the local diet.