Sunday, July 17, 2011


As in many countries around the world, crops first cultivated by Native Americans are important in the cuisine of Morocco. The Friday meal of couscous usually includes potatoes and squashes, and a Moroccan salad is always made with tomatoes. Sometimes sweet kernels of maize are put in the salad too, or made into a soup.

Maize might have come to the Old World with Columbus after his first or second voyage, but conventional scholarship indicates that the Portuguese first planted it in Europe and then introduced it to Africa and Asia. This analysis is largely based on historical documents. Recent linguistic analysis suggests a different story: Maize may have been planted in Morocco before it reached the Iberian peninsula with Arab traders or immigrants.

Either way, maize is a staple crop in Morocco--second to wheat, but especially important during periods of drought. Maize is twice as productive per acre as wheat. It requires a shorter growing season, and it is more adaptable to marginal farmland. We have seen small maize fields wherever local families control what is grown on the land: In the oasis near Toudra Gorge, where our Amazigh (Berber) guide told us that crops are shared communally as needed. By the river below Ksar Ait ben Haddou, an ancient kasbah that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with only eight families still residing within its walls. In irrigated gardens in the desert, among melons and fruit trees. Donkeys carry basketsful of maize into the medinas, where the ears are roasted and sold from small food carts--and the donkeys eat what's left.

Maize might become more important, for two reasons: the impact of climate change, and the price of wheat. From June 2010 to January 2011, the world price of wheat went up more than any other crop; it doubled in that short period of time, and the second biggest cost increase was for maize. But good harvests in Africa kept the price of maize relatively stable, while wheat became a luxury for many. In the medinas we've seen the ovens where people bring their bread dough to be baked. We've been served bread at every meal. What might it mean in Morocco to have to cut back on eating bread?

Around the world, 44 million people were driven into poverty because of rising food prices during that six month period. Morocco is closer to food self-sufficiency than any other country in the region, but everybody is talking about the impact of drought, desertification and salinization. At Ksar Ait ben Haddou, UNESCO brings fresh water to the eight resident families from 15 kilometers distant; the local water is too salty to drink, even if it's drawn from wells that are 50 or 60 feet deep. In the desert, we saw dune stabilization fences almost buried by drifting sand. When we drove 4 x 4s to a remote Berber tent camp within sight of Algeria, the matriarch told us about the impact of climate change on the nomadic way of life. It's much harder now, she said--but still, she offered us a big loaf of good bread. The texture was gritty with maize meal added to the wheat.

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