Innovation of the Week: Taking Breadfruit From the Lab in to the Field

By Janeen Madan

Eighty percent of the world’s hungry people live in tropical and sub-tropical regions; and a majority of them depend on agriculture for their food and income. As the cost of fuel and fertilizer rises, improving access to crops that are sustainable over the long run is more important than ever before. According to Dr. Diane Ragone, head of the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, breadfruit trees provide farmers in the tropics with a sustainable, low-input, and nutritious crop.

“If a man plants ten breadfruit trees in his life, which he can do in about an hour, he would completely fulfill his duty to his own as well as future generations.” Joseph Banks, 1769 (Photo credit: Jim Wiseman, the Breadfruit Institute)

Breadfruit has been an important staple crop in the Pacific region for over 3,000 years. Today it offers tremendous potential to help alleviate hunger in the tropics. But many small-scale farmers lack access to good quality planting material to cultivate these trees. The Breadfruit Institute, which manages the world’s largest collection of breadfruit, is and working to make good quality, productive varieties available to farmers worldwide.

The institute is not only conserving the crop’s diversity, but it’s also tapping into its potential to help alleviate global hunger, while protecting the environment. The Breadfruit Institute is partnering with agricultural departments, NGOs, and farmers groups to make useful and healthy varieties available globally. And in 2008, the Institute became part of the Alliance to End Hunger, a global coalition of non profits, corporations, universities, and individuals, working to combat hunger worldwide.

Breadfruit is a tropical evergreen tree that is easy to grow and requires relatively few inputs. It bears fruit 3-5 years after planting and remains productive for several decades. The starchy fruit is very nutritious, rich in calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and provides more protein than cassava. And according to Dr. Ragone, the tree is also important in agroforestry projects, providing a host of environmental benefits. Breadfruit trees provide shade for other crops, help to rebuild soil, reforest degraded lands, and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Dr. Ragone has conducted over 25 years of research aimed at conserving some 120 breadfruit varieties. In partnership with Dr. Susan Murch at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, she is using a method of in-vitro propagation (or tissue culture) to cultivate selected varieties in large quantities. The institute also conducts extensive research on the nutritional value of different breadfruit varieties and makes this information available through an easy-to-access online database.

The Breadfruit Institute is partnering with Cultivaris, a private horticulture company, that has designed efficient delivery methods to affordably distribute the young trees around the world. And the researchers are also establishing partnerships with governments, universities, and private companies, bringing their work from the laboratory to farmers’ fields, where they can help reduce hunger and improve livelihoods.

The Breadfruit Institute has set up pilot projects with partner organizations in Haiti, Honduras, and Jamaica. And they are working to promote breadfruit cultivation in countries across sub-Saharan Africa. In Ghana, for example, breadfruit is processed into nutritious infant food and in Tanzania, this important dietary staple becomes available at the beginning of the rainy season when other food sources may not be available.

And as the institute’s partnerships expand, communities will begin to harness the true value of breadfruit that can combat hunger in places where it is most acute, while also helping to manage degraded soils, and contribute to reforestation projects.

Janeen Madan is a communications associate with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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