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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
Today, an initial 3.8 acres of the land has been restored at Māla Kalu’ulu, a farm managed by Lincoln and others, thanks to hundreds of student volunteers who removed invasive trees, and it hosts dozens of other traditional food-producing trees and shrubs, more than 100 breadfruit trees, and a range of traditional Hawaiian co-crops, including taro, sweet potatoes, and coconuts. Lincoln’s wife Dana Shapiro started and manages the coop and he serves as a production advisor.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 95 percent of the co-op’s sales were wholesale to restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and schools, but when shutdowns began, farmers lost access to almost all of that revenue overnight. The organization quickly needed to pivot to direct-to-consumer sales, and although it developed a cooked, frozen breadfruit product for retail stores, it also began to look toward expanding mainland markets, requiring the expansion of shelf-stable value-added products, such as flour.
Meanwhile, Patagonia Provisions—the sustainable food line from the outdoor clothing line—is also looking to use the flour. In 2020, the company launched its first breadfruit product in cooperation with the Breadfruit Institute: a line of crackers. The fact that the flour is nutritious and gluten-free is appealing to the company, which has also funded a regenerative organic breadfruit orchard at the botanical garden through its environmental grants program.
“We wanted to create an ingredient that can be incorporated into a variety of products,” says Birgit Cameron, head of Patagonia Provisions. “We’re just setting the stage for the first widely commercial product made with breadfruit to hopefully tell the story and the reasons why it’s important. The crackers are forging that path.”
Since the Pacific Islands were never a grain- or flour-based culture, drying and milling breadfruit into flour is a relatively new process. And it’s not clear whether crackers or other products made with the flour will ever take off in Hawaii. But if it finds a market on the mainland, that could ensure that breadfruit farmers have a market.
Chefs in Hawaii have already been working with breadfruit for a while. “They have taken it and fancied it up a bit, showing that you can use it as you would a potato, or make beautiful salads out of it, and there are other people trying to use it in its ripe form, when it’s sweet and can be used as a dessert,” Cameron adds.
The intention is to show small-scale farmers in the tropics—who tend to grow only a few crops on one to two acres—that a wide variety of crops can be grown in a small space. After the team at Patagonia Provisions learned more about breadfruit, it became clear that they wanted to find a way to share the story of this crop as a means of supporting its growers. Their team searched the tropics for a place to produce their products, eventually settling on Costa Rica when connecting with the company Jungle Foods.
Compared to Hawaii, Costa Rica is well suited for Patagonia’s needs because it already had the means of production put in place, says Cameron. Patagonia just needed to support what was already operational.
It’s also more affordable to source it from outside the U.S., where manufacturing and labor costs are higher. “We know that we’re never going to be an industry leader,” Lincoln says. “We’re too small and too expensive, but I do think that we can be innovation leaders, research leaders, leaders on the cultural values side of things. There are a lot of exemplary things that Hawaii can do, but one thing we will never, never do is be major agricultural industry players because of the global competition. We have too many disadvantages against us.”
Cameron says the company’s role in Costa Rica’s breadfruit economy is a multifaceted solution to a number of problems. They are providing economic stimulation to small farmers (most of whom are living in poverty), providing new jobs within milling factories, and sharing the value of breadfruit both in local and foreign markets.
Given the fact that breadfruit has long been seen as a sacred food in Hawaii’s Indigenous communities, its entry into the gluten-free snack aisle at the local food co-op will undoubtedly be complicated. “There is definitely concern within our communities about appropriation and cultural insensitivities around the food,” says Lincoln.
But because it depends on a biodiversified environment, breadfruit may not be as likely to experience the shift that modern tropical monocrops such as oil palm encountered.
“Even if breadfruit gets industrialized and becomes a superfood, and Nestlé starts growing a million acres of it in Brazil, I still don’t think that takes away from that ability for the individual to have a tree in their backyard,” Lincoln says when discussing market expansion. “There are few things that give you so much with so little input.”
Lincoln and his counterparts have recognized that value-added products like Patagonia Provisions’ crackers are going to be essential for the survival of breadfruit. Success metrics for the co-op are often positioned against the massive quantity of staple crops that Hawaii imports, which highlights how small of a fight breadfruit is currently putting up. For example, this past year, the co-op processed 130,000 pounds of breadfruit—Hawaii subsequently imported roughly 25 million pounds of russet potatoes, according to Lincoln—a half percent mark of potato replacement, which isn’t even the region’s dominant starch. Foods like wheat, corn, and potatoes have been so successful because they have so many uses; Lincoln says he hopes to see breadfruit move in that direction.
“You have to have product diversity and a lot of different potential uses to maximize impact,” he says. “Especially when we’re talking about local food security and substitution of imports. You’re seeing some amazingly innovative things coming out of people making things like breadfruit butters, cheeses, flour, and all the baked good potentials out of the flour. There are a whole bunch of things that breadfruit could diversify into and we can produce them locally.”
But because many of those other crops are highly subsidized and grown in monocrops whose environmental and social costs are externalized, breadfruit grown in diverse agroforests faces an uphill battle. A half pound of par-steamed breadfruit retails at $8 in Hawaii, for instance.
For that reason, encouraging more people to feed themselves and their neighbors is an easier ask. “If you have a tiny little backyard and you take one hour to plant a breadfruit tree, it really provides a huge amount of your family’s staple needs,” Lincoln says. “A single tree can produce enough to feed a four-person family all the caloric input it needs.”
The hope is to help more people in Hawaii and beyond return to a different kind of relationship with traditional foods that could be healing for people and for the land. “In certain areas of the Pacific Islands,” says Ragone. “A tree is dedicated and planted at the birth of a child as a symbol that they will have food and abundance their entire life.”
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