Saturday Series: An Interview with Diane Ragone

By Carly Chaapel

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Name: Diane Ragone

Location/Affiliation: The Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG)

Dr. Diane Ragone, Director of the Breadfruit Institute
(Photo credit: Julia Flynn Siler)

Bio: Dr. Diane Ragone is the Director of the Breadfruit Institute, headquartered on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The institute promotes the conservation and use of breadfruit, a tropical starchy tree fruit, for both reforestation and food.

What sparked your interest in breadfruit cultivation in the first place?

I’ve been interested in breadfruit since I began my graduate work in 1983. I was mainly interested in traditional fruit trees in the Pacific Islands. Then, I wrote a term paper on breadfruit, and I became really interested in its importance to plant diversity and food security. I set out to collect samples of each variety and study them from a conservation perspective. I lived in Samoa for a year, which is a center for breadfruit diversity. From there, I started traveling and eventually collected breadfruit varieties from over 50 tropical islands.

We are a private nonprofit organization that is headquartered in Hawaii. We have four gardens across the Hawaiian Islands and one in southern Florida. For me, the garden is the ideal place to be, as breadfruit is an important collection focus. I connected with NTBG for a partnership as a graduate student because I could help the garden accomplish their mission to discover, research, conserve, and educate people about tropical plants with my own work. I have worked there since 1989 in various programs, and in 2003, the garden created the Breadfruit Institute. Our main breadfruit collection is on Maui, and all the gardens are open to visitors for self-guided tours.

What about breadfruit specifically makes the fruit a promising staple for food security and reforestation in the tropics?

Breadfruit is unique because it is starchier than most fruit. It is equivalent to rice, potatoes, and cassava, all starchy staples in different corners of the world. However, all of the global starchy staple crops are annuals (except for bananas or plantains), while breadfruit are long-lived perennial trees. This means that we receive all of the benefits that trees provide while also gaining a bountiful crop with no backbreaking labor. You plant the tree one time, and you receive nutritious food for a lifetime. Breadfruit trees are often planted as part of mixed gardens, around homes, and in villages. In parts of the Pacific, breadfruit serves as an integral part of the agroforestry system. Entire hillsides are often managed around breadfruit, and over 120 useful species have been documented in breadfruit agroforests on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei.

What about breadfruit have you found most fascinating in your recent research of the crop?

We have an incredible collection for research in Maui and Kauai. Recently, we have been studying the viability of year-round production based on seasonality. We have also conducted a nutritional analysis of different varieties, begun DNA fingerprinting, and studied the human-plant relationship. DNA fingerprinting reveals a fascinating pattern of human migration in the Pacific. We really wanted to target a good quality variety, so we picked a subgroup based on our field work. It is fascinating that several varieties that we chose based on taste and other desirable attributes described by the local cultivators also happen to be the most nutritious.

Do you foresee any challenges in breadfruit conservation as climate change could influence future biodiversity and the global food supply?

From a conservation perspective, we’ve already seen a lot of erosion of breadfruit diversity in the Pacific. That’s one reason why I collected so many varieties. We started to see erosion for both cultural reasons, such as diet and lifestyle changes, and environmental reasons like severe storms, droughts, and hurricanes. People are generally replanting fewer varieties, which is why the collection in Hawaii is so important.

But we also see a potential for breadfruit amid climate change. All breadfruit elsewhere came from a handful of varieties that were introduced from Polynesia to the tropics 200 years ago. With all of this diversity, we have varieties that can grow in pure sand and saline conditions. They thrive in hotter conditions because they are tropical plants by nature. Researchers in West Africa demonstrated how breadfruit could still provide fruit during a drought when other traditional crop plants failed to produce a viable crop. While breadfruit trees show promise of survival through conditions spurred by climate change, they can also help sequester atmospheric carbon if they are planted for reforestation. I am in awe when I see breadfruit used in agroforestry. The trees provide valuable resources for both food and habitat.

What part of your work with breadfruit are you most proud of?

I am so happy that I was able to put together this incredible collection of breadfruit. Our mission is to both conserve breadfruit for biological and cultural benefits as well as use it as a reliable source of food. People are celebrating breadfruit around the world, seeing it in new ways, and finding creative ways to cook with breadfruit that range from a simple boiled product to breadfruit au gratin. I am astonished by the human ingenuity that transforms this fruit into tasty meals for families throughout the tropics.

Carly Chaapel is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

Read our other Saturday Series interviews: Shirley Lewis, Mary McLaughlin, Bruce Melton, Kari Hamerschlag, and Sarah Alexander.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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