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The plant that keeps giving

BREADFRUIT:

Dr Laura Roberts-Nkrumah, Senior Lecturer in Crop Science at the University of the West Indies (UWI), believes breadfruit has great potential as a powerhouse for sustainable local agriculture—a potential we've yet to realise.

By SHEREEN ALI. First published in the T&T Guardian, Nov. 9 & 11, 2015. Later republished by The Pelican (The UWI magazine), Jan-June 2016, issue 14, pages 30-35.

Breadfruit dishes, from roasts to coconut-milk oil-downs to crispy chips, have warmed the heart and belly of many a Caribbean person—especially in St Vincent, where breadfruit is a passion. Here in T&T, it's been a part of the landscape and culture, too: “If you have a breadfruit tree in your yard, you'll never starve,” said a grizzled Roger from Belmont one night, a senior bartender/entrepreneur who remembered many times in his youth when, cared for by an elderly grandmother figure, the breadfruit tree in their back yard was often the only thing that fed them in tough times.

Breadfruit first came to the Caribbean in 1793, when Captain William Bligh of the ship HMS Providence  brought young plants from Tahiti in the South Pacific to plant in the Caribbean. The idea was to provide a cheap, plentiful food for enslaved peoples, to prevent persistent famine and food shortages in the sugar-growing colonies. And so it was: breadfruit spread to the West Indian islands.

From the staple food of the underclass, the humble breadfruit is today becoming an in-demand food item for its nutritional, cultural and ecological benefits.

Foodwise, breadfruit is a winner, being a high-energy source of carbohydrates, and wonderfully low in fat, with good fibre, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, thiamine, and niacin. It is gluten-free. It is a form of starch that releases sugar slowly into the bloodstream, compared to cereals from wheat flour which release a burst of sugar — so breadfruit is better for diabetes and obesity control.

You can curry breadfruit, steam it, roast it, fry it, boil it or grill it: it absorbs almost any flavour. You can eat it as a starch staple, as part of a salad, as a snack or as a sweet dessert, or even as a chutney or pickle, depending on how ripe it is, and your recipe. And according to Dr Laura Roberts-Nkrumah, Senior Lecturer in Crop Science at the University of the West Indies (UWI), breadfruit has great potential as a powerhouse for sustainable local agriculture—a potential we've yet to realise.

Breadfruit: so sustainable

Dr Roberts-Nkrumah is passionate about Caribbean agriculture, and is especially fascinated by breadfruit. She's been lecturing at UWI since 1988 – 27 years; 25 of those have been focused on breadfruit research—as a crop and as a policy issue for food security.

Dr Roberts-Nkrumah spoke to the Guardian on Thursday October 15, 2015 from the Department of Food Production at UWI's Frank Stockdale building about why we should be treating breadfruit with a great deal more respect.

“Breadfruit as a perennial tree crop offers a lot of advantages that are long lasting. As a perennial crop, it does not have to be replanted annually, so there is no annual disturbance to the soil as you would have with short-term crops,” she explained.

“Also, when it sheds its leaves, it allows for recycling of nutrients. As a large tree, it also sequesters carbon in its biomass. And the shedding of leaves provides mulch, which conserves soil moisture during the dry season, and very importantly, also helps to prevent soil loss, particularly in hilly areas.”

Soil erosion protection is a valuable service: in the Pacific, breadfruit agroforests have protected mountain slopes from erosion for more than two millenia, notes the Breadfruit Institute, which manages the largest and most extensive breadfruit collection in the world. Located in Hawaii at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, the institute conserves and researches breadfruit varieties, and seeks to expand plantings of good quality breadfruit varieties in tropical regions for food security.

The institute website notes that in traditional agroforestry systems in the Pacific, breadfruit trees for centuries have created a lush overstory for tropical agroforestry, sheltering a wide range of cultivated and native plants grown for food and other purposes. It also notes that breadfruit trees give shelter and food for important plant pollinators and seed dispersers such as honeybees, birds, and fruit bats.

“Breadfruit helps prolong soil fertility, even in a cropping system,” explained Dr Roberts-Nkrumah, “—and that's why breadfruit in T&T has been traditionally planted with cocoa—because it helps to create the kind of environment in which cocoa will grow well; it provides the shade, it helps retain the soil's moisture, recycles nutrients and so on.”

“So breadfruit protects the environment,” said Roberts-Nkrumah. “And because it's a long-term crop, it can also be a sustainable source of income and nutrition for a long period—for more than one generation. It epitomises what sustainable agriculture is about.”

Many uses: Food, paper, medicinal
products, glue, insect repellants

Roberts-Nkrumah doesn't think we have explored this potential enough. She commented that some of our elders would know of the multiple uses of breadfruit. In addition to food, for instance, the plant can be used for medicine; the wood pulp can be made into paper; three breadfruit compounds - capric, undecanoic and lauric acids – are good insect repellants; the white sticky sap (“laglee” in TT lingo) can be used as an adhesive; and the light, sturdy, termite-resistant wood can be used for construction of structures including houses and outrigger canoes. It's a tough tree, too: even after hurricane damage, a damaged breadfruit tree can survive and regrow itself.

It's a truly resilient, multipurpose plant.

Although many of us like eating breadfruit, there's a reason it's never been grown on  a large commercial scale in T&T. And this has a lot to do with our own historical lack of basic information on the plant, its many varieties, and which varieties might be better for which purposes—even though breadfruit has been growing here since the late 18th century.

Dr Laura Roberts-Nkrumah recalled that even up to the 1990s, there was almost no research being done on breadfruit, whether here in T&T or worldwide: “No-one was doing the kind of research that would have been put into sugar or banana or corn, for instance,” she remembered. That dearth of information was a barrier to economic investment in breadfruit as a commercial crop, she said.

Due partly to  the research efforts at UWI, though, that situation is changing: much of her own research on expanding the available germplasm  and evaluating  different varieties of breadfruit here in T&T.

High yields and long life
make breadfruit a winner

Roberts-Nkrumah was attracted to breadfruit for two reasons: its high yields (one tree can yield from 30 to 200 fruits per season), and the permanence of the trees, which last a long time. “There are breadfruit trees in our landscape that have been there for generations,” she commented.

She said there were two main barriers to commercial breadfruit agriculture here. The first is our limited stock of germplasm: “The genetic variability is very limited, because breadfruit is an introduced crop to the Caribbean—there was just so much that Captain Bligh could have brought. And he collected from a very small  area.”

She said we have only two main varieties here: the White and the Yellow. Both bear seasonally. While seasonality is not necessarily a big issue—we can eat other starchy foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, or cassava instead—we can still explore whether there are other breadfruit varieties that can bear at other times of the year, she said.

The second—and bigger—problem to commercial breadfruit production is harvesting , said Roberts-Nkrumah.

Breadfruit, after all, comes from a tall tree: “This huge yield you get from a breadfruit tree is because you are dealing with a very large plant. How will you check to see the fruit's level of maturity? How will you get the fruit down from trees 50 to 60 feettall? Also, remember it is a fruit—when it ripens, it falls, and can get damaged or squashed. So while height might be great for productivity (per unit area of ground, using vertical space), it has challenges for harvesting and marketability of the fruit.”

Roberts-Nkrumah saw there was a genetic aspect to both these problems, therefore, she decided to pursue expansion of the breadfruit germplasm.

Current UWI research

Ongoing UWI research in the Faculty of Food and Agriculture, said Roberts-Nkrumah, includes evaluating different breadfruit varieties. The faculty has breadfruit field research at the University Field Station in Valsayn, and some research is also done at PCS Nitrogen Model Farm in Couva. These organisations also collaborate annually on training sessions for farmers.

This research is examining the different breadfruit varieties for their types of growth and development (including height); their yields; their seasonality; their disease resistance (in both the tree and the fruit); and propagation methods by improving traditional methods and using new approaches including tissue culture, and grafting.

Most breadfruit we get in the Caribbean are the large, seedless types—white and yellow varieties—and therefore have more pulp for human consumption, said Roberts-Nkrumah. But there are many seeded types, and many other varieties, elsewhere. In Hawaii at the Breadfruit Institute, for instance, there are some 120 varieties of breadfruit.

Roberts-Nkrumah noted most breadfruit in Trinidad grows along the east coast and in the valleys, because of the higher moisture there. And she said that if farmers were thinking of investing in breadfruit as a crop, they first need to do their research and have a plan, as breadfruit is a long-term crop. They must carefully consider their markets among other important factors before deciding on a variety. She said basic questions would be: Why do you want to grow breadfruit? What will be its end use? And what kind of consumers will you sell it to?

So far, some advances in UWI breadfruit research at the St. Augustine Campus include: a wider stock of germplasm characterising cultivars; more information on breadfruit's nutritional composition; consumer preferences; information of properties of breadfruit flour and related products; and post-harvest management, processing, and design of processing equipment. At the Mona campus, research has been done on medicinal properties.

New breadfruit community online

Earlier in 2015, UWI's Faculty of Food and Agriculture hosted a successful five-day International Breadfruit Conference (July 5-8) at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Port-of-Spain, which attracted presenters from the Pacific, Asia, Africa, the US and the Caribbean. It was the first conference on breadfruit ever held in T&T, and generously supported by PCS Nitrogen Trinidad Limited, the major sponsor.

Dr Roberts-Nkrumah said the impact of the conference has been very good. As a result of networking and knowledge exchanged there, institutional use of breadfruit may increase. Also, emerging from the conference, there will be more research done to put breadfruit into consumer hands, and there have been increased requests for help from farmers. Also, there's a healthy interest in harnessing breadfruit into community tourism along the East coast—and an increasing recognition of breadfruit's potential in community development.

Triggered by interest at the conference, there will also soon be a new breadfruit website; there is already a new Facebook page called the International Breadfruit Network, to exchange ideas and information across geographical borders on anything breadfruit-related.

"I feel it's the food of the future," said Olelo pa'a Faith Ogawa, a Hawaii-born private chef, to writer Julia Sile for a 2011 Wall Street Journal article on breadfruit: "If I were to speak to the breadfruit spirit, it would tell me: 'Grow me! Eat me!' It can feed villages!" 

MORE INFO:

The International Breadfruit Network: https://www.facebook.com/breadfruitnetwork

UWI Department of Food Production: http://sta.uwi.edu/ffa/foodprod/ Tel: 662-2002, ext 83989; email: food.production@sta.uwi.edu; address: First Floor, Sir Frank Stockdale Building, Department of Food Production, Faculty of Food and Agriculture, UWI, St Augustine

The Breadfruit Institute: http://ntbg.org/breadfruit/ Address: The Breadfruit Institute, National Tropical Botanical Garden, 3530 Papalina Road, Kalaheo, Kauai, Hawaii USA 96741 Tel: (808) 332-7324 Email: breadfruitinstitute@ntbg.org