Reviving Breadfruit, the Polynesian Staple, Could Nourish People and Fight Climate Change

Diane Ragone works in a food forest that she has spent many years cultivating at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. From the ground to mid-canopy, the forest is home to more than 100 plant species, but there is one ancient, enormous tree that stands out: breadfruit.

The melon-sized, lizard-skinned fruit, also known as ‘ulu, has been at the center of Ragone’s research and advocacy for nearly four decades—and for good reason. The flowering tree is native to the Pacific Islands and can also be found in tropical regions throughout the developing world. When cooked, it develops a starchy, dense consistency similar to that of a potato.

And while it was once a popular staple food all over the Pacific rim, it was largely replaced by other more “modern” foods over the course of the last century.

A tractor on an 'ulu farm

Photo credit: Hawai’i ‘Ulu Cooperative

“There was a decline, and that’s what precipitated my Ph.D research and fieldwork in collecting breadfruit varieties,” explains Ragone, who directs the Breadfruit Institute at the botanical garden. “Much of it had to do with changing food habits and production systems after World War II.”

After the war, food production became an ultra-commodified industry run by a new set of economic principles and global trade, shifting once agrarian societies into cash economies. Hawaii’s agriculture had already been dominated by the coffee, pineapple, and sugar industries, and many of the foods that were central to Native Hawaiian foodways were replaced by crops grown specifically for export. Today roughly 90 percent of the region’s food is imported, leaving the islands vulnerable in crises and natural disasters.

Ragone sees breadfruit as a possible solution—and not just in Hawaii. She believes it’s the most ecological carbohydrate in the world, with one tree boasting the ability to produce more than 300 pounds of fruit annually. Most staple carbohydrates—think corn, wheat, and potatoes—are the product of annual crops, meaning they need to be replanted every year. And that replanting requires all kinds of resources. Breadfruit grows on a long-lived tree, which gives it high water and nutrient efficiency, and the tree’s roots help it absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground. It’s also a key element in multistory agroforestry, an increasingly popular approach to growing food in the face of the climate crisis.

Ragone isn’t alone in pushing for breadfruit’s return. A range of regional chefs have been finding new ways to utilize the traditional food in their restaurants, a farming cooperative is exploring methods for supporting independent farmers, and a packaged food company has developed shelf-stable products using breadfruit flour. If things go as planned, breadfruit appears to be on the precipice of a much-needed renaissance in Hawaii and beyond.

“When we talk about our contemporary food system, there are so many problems—environmental problems, nutrition concerns, and access and justice concerns,” says Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, professor at University of Hawaii and co-founder and production advisor at the Hawaii ‘Ulu Cooperative. “To us, breadfruit hits all of them. It’s a highly nutrient-dense carbohydrate and compared to almost all the other major staples we eat, it’s much healthier. In terms of access and justice, there are so few crops that involve planting a single tree in your backyard and feeding your family.”

Preserving Breadfruit for the Future

The Breadfruit Institute is based in Hawaii, but its work spans the Pacific Islands, where roughly 3.5 million, or one third of the region’s population, is food insecure. At the same time, a vast majority of Pacific Island nations import food commodities at an average value that tops $90 million, while only exporting food products valued at $12 million.

To bolster sustainable local markets, Ragone has been collecting breadfruit variety samples (the institute currently holds the germplasm of 150, making it the largest collection in the world), learning about the ways in which the crop flourishes, and advocating for the harvesting of breadfruit throughout the regions where it thrives. Ragone and her colleagues also work to gain a better understanding of breadfruit as a resource and its varietal differences by conducting nutritional analyses, studying fruiting seasons, and propagating and sharing varieties.

They hope to see more of the trees planted, but Ragone is quick to point out that she’s not reintroducing it. “What we’ve done in the Pacific Islands has been about conservation—conservation of the crop varieties and traditional knowledge, and then looking at the centuries-long value and importance of breadfruit in the islands,” she says.

Encouraging regional farmers to grow breadfruit exclusively for local consumption is no easy task. In recent years many Hawaiian breadfruit farmers have cut down their trees because they didn’t have a market for the fruit. While transient hubs with dense Caribbean and South American enclaves, such as New York and Toronto, often receive shipments of breadfruit in small quantities as a means for providing a taste of home, new markets have remained a challenge, primarily because breadfruit ripens very quickly, giving it a short shelf life.

Noa Lincoln. (Photo credit: Hawai'i 'Ulu Cooperative)

Noa Lincoln. (Photo credit: Hawai’i ‘Ulu Cooperative)

“Breadfruit’s shelf life is pretty abysmal,” Lincoln says. “Throughout the life of the co-op, fresh fruit sales have represented less than 3 percent of total sales. Pretty much everything we’ve been doing involves minimal-processing, by par-steaming and freezing so that there is a year-round supply, which is important for a lot of chefs and buyers.”

The Hawaii ‘Ulu Cooperative, founded in 2016, is a network of small-scale breadfruit farmers that recognize the value of breadfruit in making Hawaii more food secure. The organization is committed to collectively improving the health of breadfruit, while also finding viable markets to keep farmers in business.

One inspiration for the cooperative is a traditional agricultural system known as the Kaluʻulu, which was once a breadfruit belt that stretched along 10 square miles of South Kona on the Big Island’s western coast. Lincoln’s doctoral research sought to define the extent and productivity of the ancient parcel of land. He estimated that the traditional agroforestry system once produced 20,000 metric tons, or about 33 million pounds, of breadfruit per year.

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