Tropical fruit may play role in feeding 9.6 billion

(USA TODAY)- As the world's population heads toward a projected 9.6 billion by 2050, producing enough healthy food in a sustainable manner will be a challenge. But a non-profit organization says it has a piece of the solution: breadfruit.

The Hawaii-based Breadfruit Institute hopes the tropical fruit — perhaps better known for its role in the tale of the mutiny on the Bounty — will play an important part in feeding billions.

The fruit first gained infamy in the 18th century, when William Bligh, the captain of the British navy ship HMS Bounty was sent on a mission to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies as an inexpensive, nutritious food for slaves — a mission that was aborted due to an uprising. Bligh later returned to Tahiti and took breadfruit plants to St. Vincent and Jamaica.

Fast forward a few centuries and the Breadfruit Institute is attempting to tackle hunger and deforestation by working with non-profit groups to plant breadfruit trees in such countries as Kenya, Rwanda, Pakistan and Zambia.

The push comes as the international consortium EAT, which was founded in 2013, holds a conference in Stockholm on Monday and Tuesday, where delegates discuss food, health and sustainability issues with the aim of ultimately being able to feed more than 9 billion people in the coming decades.

Introducing breadfruit to more nations has "huge potential," EAT director Gunhild Stordalen said.

High in carbohydrates and a source of antioxidants, calcium, iron and fiber, the fruit is "much better than a lot of other carbohydrates," she said. "You hit two birds with one stone, to provide better nutrition and quality nutrition."

The starchy breadfruit, described by some as bland tasting, can replace potatoes in many dishes. It can be boiled, steamed or fried to make chips.

Diane Ragone, director of the Breadfruit Institute, said she first came across the plants in the Pacific Islands decades ago, where they are an important staple food.

"The first time I saw one (breadfruit tree) I was so in awe," she said. "They had hillsides covered in breadfruit trees and other plants — it was a real model of a long-term sustainable system."

The institute began at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii in 2003, and launched the global Hunger Initiative to respond to global food security issues about five years later.

In collaboration with other organizations, the privately funded institute has sent about 60,000 plants to around 32 countries, Ragone said.

"It is the greatest distribution of breadfruit in a project ever, and we hope it will get bigger and bigger," she said.

Easy to grow and low maintenance, one tree can provide food for more than a half-century.

A lot of the countries the institute sent plants to already had one or two varieties of breadfruit, apart from Zambia and Pakistan.

The institute selects new varieties for distribution such as a compact variety — called Ma'afala — which is suitable for home gardens and produces a small, flavorful fruit.

Ragone said among those who have expressed an interest are a Rotary Club-involved group in Canada that wants to introduce breadfruit to Pakistan.

"They're interested in drying the fruit and grinding it into a flour to use to make their traditional flatbread," she said.

A teacher in a Zambian village also contacted the organization, wanting to introduce the fruit to his country and village.

"He was sent trees and he emailed us and said he was invited to go to an agricultural fair and they liked his display on breadfruit so much they've invited him to another fair," Ragone said.

The fruit, which can also be grown in Florida, is having something of a renaissance in Hawaii, Ragone said.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in breadfruit because it's gluten free," she said. "And that's of interest to a lot of people in their diets."

Marcela Villarreal, of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said the work of small organizations — such as the Breadfruit Institute — "contributes greatly" to eradicating hunger.

She added: "Breadfruit is actually a low cost and high-nutritious value plant that can address one important problem in the developing world, which is the low levels of iron among women, especially among pregnant and lactating women."


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