By Léo Azambuja
A food crop that once played a major role in providing food security for hundreds of thousands of native Hawaiians could be the key to unlock sustainability for millions of people living in some of the most hunger-ridden areas in the world.
“People are starting to really recognize our food systems don’t work, and breadfruit is a really important way in the Pacific to have a sustainable food system in a very environmentally beneficial way,” said Diane Ragone, director of the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
‘Ulu, the Hawaiian name for all varieties of breadfruit, is a starchy fruit that when cooked, resembles a potato in texture and flavor, but is a lot more versatile in the kitchen. If harvested when it’s really young, it tastes like artichoke hearts. If left on the tree to mature further, the fruit turns soft and sweet, and can be eaten raw.
When you look at the nutritional value of this gluten-free staple, it is high in complex carbohydrates, rich in dietary fiber, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, thiamin, niacin and vitamin A and B. It also has a moderate glycemic index compared to potatoes, white rice and white bread.
Reaching maturity in three to four years, a single tree producing 100 to 200 fruits per year can provide 200 to 400 pounds of food.
Ragone has been doing research on breadfruit for about 30 years, collecting, documenting and studying hundreds of varieties from all over the globe. Since the 1990s, people have been calling NTBG wanting breadfruit, she said.
Meanwhile, in the last few years, knowing the value and the potential breadfruit could have globally, NTBG partnered with Dr. Susan Murch, Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, who does micro-propagation. From a single breadfruit bud, thousands of clones can be grown. Then, Cultivaris, LLC, an innovative horticultural company based in California and Germany, grows the clones until they are healthy enough to be shipped anywhere in the world.
“All these pieces started coming together,” said Ragone, who years ago compared world maps showing areas most affected by hunger and areas where breadfruit was suitable to grow. The result was a striking similarity.
“That’s why we launched in 2009 a Global Hunger Initiative, to really try to make these varieties available and work with partners around the world,” she said.
Since then, the Breadfruit Institute, with the help of many domestic and foreign partners, has sold or given away more than 63,000 breadfruit trees to 35 different countries, according to Ragone.
“It’s truly an international program,” Ragone said.
In Hawai‘i alone, the institute has given away more than 8,300 trees. About 1,200 of those trees are on Kaua‘i, distributed during events such as Arbor Day and the Kaua‘i Community Seed and Plant Exchange.
“We wanted to get trees in the community, and we provided the trees free,” said Ragone, adding this year, the institute will give away an additional 2,000 trees.
For thousands of years, Pacific islanders have used breadfruit as part of their daily diet. First cultivated in the western Pacific, breadfruit spread to Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia in the last 3,000 to 4,000 years.
Tahitians brought the Hawaiian variety of breadfruit, ‘ulu (the same Hawaiian word for all breadfruits), in voyaging canoes to Hawai‘i 500 to 700 years ago. For centuries, ‘ulu played a major role in Hawai‘i’s sustainability, contributing to a system that provided food for hundreds of thousands. On Kaua‘i, large groves were planted along the leeward coasts and windward valleys. On the Big Island, O‘ahu, Maui, Lana‘i and Molokai, vast groves covered valleys and leeward and windward coastal areas.
But in the last century, especially in growing urban areas, groves were cut down, and cultivation and use declined.
Today, as much as 85 percent of the food consumed here is imported.
“There’s a real need for sustainability in Hawai‘i,” Ragone said.
NTBG’s affair with breadfruit started years before Ragone joined the nonprofit. Since the 1970s, breadfruit has been NTBG’s logo. In 1978, they started a small collection, and four years later, they had 25 trees.
In 1983, while working on her PhD in horticulture at the University of Hawai‘i, Ragone got interested in breadfruit after reading a paper about it and learning about NTBG’s collection.
She would later move to Samoa. Over a two-year period, she collected nearly 400 accessions from 45 islands. Partnering with NTBG, she brought those plants to Hawai‘i. Using a traditional root-shoot propagation method, she was able to grow about 30 percent of them at NTBG. In the mid-1990s, another 150 accessions were documented and collected.
“We have the world’s largest collection of breadfruit, over 120 varieties — 285 trees on Maui, 45 trees here. And we have varieties that are now rare or extinct on their home island,” Ragone said.
The main reason to create the collection was conservation, she said. There has been a drastic reduction in breadfruit diversity because of cultural changes, powerful storms and sea-level rising.
In 2003, because of NTBG’s large collection of breadfruit, they founded the Breadfruit Institute. The institute’s mission is to promote the conservation, study and use of breadfruit for food and reforestation.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s an incredible resource,” Ragone said.
This month, Gov. David Ige, along with Kaua‘i Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and other mayors in Hawai‘i, will proclaim September as the month of Ho‘oulu Ka ‘Ulu o Hawai‘i Nei, or To Lift Up and Celebrate ‘Ulu in the State of Hawai‘i.
As part of the Breadfruit vs. Potato initiative (Hawai‘i imports 57 million pounds of potato or potato products annually), celebrity chef Sam Choy — Hawai‘i’s ‘Ulu Ambassador — will do a breadfruit cooking demonstration at Kukui Grove Center in Lihu‘e Sept. 19, from noon to 2 p.m.
In the upcoming Arbor Day, in November, the Breadfruit Institute will distribute free young breadfruit trees and provide information on how to care for them.
Visit breadfruit.org for more information.