In a world where hundreds of millions of people are malnourished, there can be no shortage of proposed solutions that should be considered. Perhaps the most interesting I have heard yet involves a relatively obscure tropical plant from the Pacific Islands. As NPR reports:
A traditional staple in Hawaii, breadfruit is sometimes called the tree potato, for its potato-like consistency when cooked. Except breadfruit has higher-quality protein and packs a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals.
That’s why Ragone has spent years trying to cultivate this nutrient-rich staple for poorer, tropical parts of the world, where the majority of the world’s hungriest people live.
Breadfruit offers several advantages over other staples, says [Diane] Ragone [of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute]. The fast-growing perennial trees require far less labor, fertilizer and pesticides than crops like rice and wheat. They’re also more productive. A single tree yields an average of 250 fruits a year and can feed a family for generations.
If mass produced, breadfruit could provide a steady source of nutritious food for farmers and their families, and supplement their incomes.
Indeed, breadfruit, which originates from what is today Papua New Guinea, has been a key part of the Pacific diet for generations; its nutrient density and ease of cultivation sustained entire societies and helped them avert malnourishment — one Samoan variety called the Ma’afala even offers more protein than soybeans.
This proven success is why scientists like Ragone are scouring the hundreds of extant breadfruit varieties to find the ones that offer an ideal sweet spot (pun intended) of flavor, nutrition, and long growing season. She and a Canadian research partner identified dozens of breadfruit cultivars that have high protein content and all the key amino acids, including the Ma’afala; five of these are now being grown by her team commercially in places like Hawaii.
Hunger advocates are already leading the way in addressing global hunger through breadfruit.
In 2009, Josh Schneider, who runs a worldwide ornamental plant business, launched Global Breadfruit to grow and distribute the trees on a global scale. Nearly 83,000 trees are now growing in 40 countries, including 14,000 that Schneider and his partners delivered this year to 10 countries, including Cuba and Guyana.
But introducing novel foods to combat hunger can be tricky. For example, when nutritional scientist Kara Bresnahan went to Zambia, where traditional maize is white, she found that people were reluctant to try maize fortified with vitamin A because it was orange, like the corn they fed their animals. “The hardest thing is finding something that’s culturally appropriate,” Bresnahan says.
That’s where breadfruit has an advantage, says Schneider. Most of the farmers he works with were already aware of breadfruit as a crop. “People have been very open to breadfruit and creative at incorporating it into their traditional cuisines and adapting it to their needs.”
A farmer Schneider worked with in Vietnam sells sake made from breadfruit. A woman in Liberia sells breadfruit chips. And in Jamaica, the Mango Valley Co-op sells breadfruit flour.
Of course, growing breadfruit on its own is not going to solve the complex and widespread problem of food insecurity and malnutrition; even the Pacific Islanders for whom the crop was a staple relied on other tropical crops to supplement the supply or fill in the months between breadfruit harvests. Coupling breadfruit farming with mango, cassava, sweet potatoes, and other nutritious tropical crops will ensure that farmers have something to eat or sell year-round.
Breadfruit may soon take even the U.S. by storm, giving growers around the world a chance to make an income from this unique crop.
Breadfruit flour entrepreneurs in Hawaii, Samoa and Jamaica will soon have a chance to sell their products to U.S. consumers. In February, the FDA ruled breadfruit flour safe for use, based on extensive safety tests done in Murch’s lab. Flour made out of breadfruit, and products containing it, could hit U.S. shelves as soon next year.
The timing for the FDA ruling couldn’t be better, Murch says. Over the past six months, she’s seen “massive excitement” about breadfruit in Jamaica. A Jamaican reggae band called Chi Ching Ching even recorded a song about breadfruit. “It’s No. 1 on the charts,” she says.
Here’s hoping that breadfruit becomes the next culinary sensation. From what little of it I have sampled, it is a hearty and savory fruit, to say nothing of its capacity to help the world’s hungry millions.