Mitiana Arbon reflects on the potential and benefits of the Pacific breadfruit for food security in developing countries.
Breadfruit has been grown as a staple crop throughout the Pacific region for over 3000 years. Following European exploration in the Pacific, naturalists and colonial officials saw the trees’ productiveness and high nutritional value as a cheap source of food security for slaves in the British Caribbean. So when the sailors sent to fetch breadfruit from Tahiti mutinied against Captain William Bligh, the desire for the fruit was so high that a second attempt to procure them was made. While Bligh’s second voyage proved successful and the plant established well, unfortunately, the slaves were less keen to adopt the new food.
Recent trends have seen a come back for breadfruit. High in essential nutrients and vitamins – with 10 times the amount of potassium found in bananas – just one breadfruit is thought to provide a foundational meal for a family of five. It is also more productive per acre than other staples such as rice, wheat and maize.
Organizations like the Hawaiian not-for-profit Breadfruit Institute have drawn on the potential applications of breadfruit within development and food security programs. As leading Breadfruit expert and current Director Dr Diane Ragone argues ‘…80% of the world’s hungry live in tropical and subtropical regions… Facing soaring food, fuel, and fertilizer costs, farmers in the tropics need sustainable, low-input, nutritious crops…. many countries… have [the] ecological conditions suitable for cultivating breadfruit’. Since 2009, the Global Hunger Initiative (supported by the Breadfruit Institute) has sent more than 60,000 breadfruit trees to 33 countries and territories worldwide.
In 2008, the National Tropical Botanical Garden and the Government of Samoa entered into a Memorandum of Understanding allowing for the distribution of three Samoan Breadfruit varieties with royalties from sales shared. Samoa’s cultivar of Ma’afala has been identified as optimal for mass propagation and high in protein and mineral content. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi reported at the time that Ma’afala is Samoa’s ‘contribution to saving the hungry in Africa’.
Nonprofits, like Trees That Feed Foundation, have distributed it to schools, hospitals, and public spaces in Jamaica – shipping over 12,000 trees to Haitian communities alone. In Haiti, the trees are praised for their continuous fruiting period and enhancement of local watersheds in deforested regions. The seedless nature of the tree’s production also prevents the potential of it becoming invasive in foreign enviroments.
In West Africa, where communities are still recovering from the ravages of the Ebola epidemic, breadfruit can potentially offer the food security for communities faced with reduced mobility and trade. Other potential benefits include the high levels of provitamin A carotenoids that could potentially reduce infant blindness in a heavy breadfruit diet.
Breadfruit crops can potentially improve the quality of life for rural women in African communities – with approximately 90% of farmers African women, breadfruit can reduce labour to a minimum. One tree alone can produce between 200-450 kilograms of fruit per season. In addition to freeing valuable time for women, the fruits are a cheap source of iron, crucial amongst pregnant and lactating women.
Breadfruit contains high levels of fibre, protein, and essential nutrients that unlike potatoes or white rice score low on the glycaemic index providing stable blood sugar levels. It can be eaten raw, baked, boiled, fried, pickled, steamed, candied, and even dried and milled into a nutritionally rich gluten free flour alternative. Breadfruit can be consumed at all stages of its development, both ripe as a fruit and mature as a vegetable, and resembles a cross between a potato and fresh bread when baked.
With greater food insecurity due to climate change and soil degradation, breadfruit provides particular niche solutions for tropical communities. It can be intercropped and does not require land clearing, cutting labour time and reducing topsoil loss. The tree is low maintenance, requiring no agrochemicals, reducing farmers’ capital input and producing more food per tree than other equivalent tropical staples, such as plantain or cassava. It also has high salinity tolerance, enabling survival from climate change induced sea level rise, which other crops such as taro, tapioca, and yams cannot.
Additionally; breadfruit tree wood is termite resistant; the sap can be used for caulking and waterproofing; the male breadfruit flower can be burnt as a natural mosquito repellent; and the bark fibers can be harvested without killing the trees and made into clothing, and paper as evident in many Pacific communities. Samoan Vailima breweries have managed to even develop a gluten free breadfruit beer. This multi-use can provide communities with further value added products
The humble Pacific breadfruit has the potential to combat food insecurity, in addition to improving the environment and living standards of millions of people living in the equatorial belt. While many of the plants are barely reaching their potential now, we can only ponder the future benefits that will soon hang from these trees.