- Originally from Southeast Asia, breadfruit trees produce large, potato-like fruits that can be used in many different culinary applications, making this a reliable crop for places struggling with poverty and food security.
- According to recent research, the increased temperatures of climate change will widen breadfruit’s range, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.
- A few small organizations have been working to spread breadfruit trees around the world by encouraging farmers to plant breadfruit alongside other food crops in agroforestry plots. NGOs say this style of planting not only increases food security but makes these food systems even more resilient to climate change.
Marisol Villalobos has a routine with her breadfruit trees. Nearly every morning, as the sun is just cresting the horizon, she drives to her groves nestled in the mountains of Jayuya, Puerto Rico, steps out of the car and pauses to breathe in the thick scent of flowers, fallen leaves and ripening fruit. As she listens to the calls of parrots and cuckoos in the breadfruit canopy, she blesses the trees and thinks, as she often does, how appropriate it is that the Puerto Rican word for breadfruit is pana, a word also used to refer to a very close friend.
For Villalobos, and potentially for humanity, breadfruit is emerging as a friend with a lot to offer: a versatile source of food, a potential biodiversity protector and a possible solution against multiple fronts in the climate crisis.
Producing an abundant annual yield of starchy, nutritious fruit with the utility of a potato, breadfruit offers farmers a reliable staple crop that requires little maintenance once it has matured. What’s more, recent research published in PLOS Climate predicts that breadfruit’s range will actually increase with the rising temperatures of climate change, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“We know a lot of staple crops around the world are going to be very impacted by climate change, like rice, corn, wheat,” says co-author Lucy Yang, an environmental scientist who researched the study while an undergraduate at Northwestern University. “But breadfruit can be a centerpiece for biodiversity; it is extremely nutritious and the main crux of this paper is that it’s an important solution for low-latitude parts of the world. Where, coincidentally, food insecurity is happening, too.”
Breadfruit on the rise
Largely thanks to the efforts of a few small organizations, breadfruit groves are popping up all over the world, spreading this tree far from its native habitat in Southeast Asia. Breadfruit’s versatility has also made it a rising star in the culinary world: its knobbly green fruit, which can grow as large as a soccer ball, can be roasted, grilled, steamed, baked or fried. It can be eaten alongside meat or stirred into stews, crisped into french fries, crackers or chips or baked into cheesecake-like pies.
And many advocates are encouraging farmers to multiply breadfruit’s advantages by planting the trees in agroforestry plots, raising it alongside other crops rather than in spaced-out orchards.
Breadfruit can be planted alongside mango, avocado, coconut palms, plantains or bananas, which all work together to retain water and provide shade. In the undergrowth, farmers might plant shade-loving coffee, cocoa, taro, turmeric, ginger or cassava; and they can seed plants like yams, sweet potatoes, peppers and tomatoes around the forest’s edges to take advantage of more available sunlight as well as the rich fertilizer provided by the trees.
“It really depends on the family and the farmer, what they like to eat, what kind of flowers or medicinal plants they like to harvest,” says Diane Ragone, the founder and director of the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawai’i. “It can be absolutely flexible, and it changes over time: What you can grow in a newly planted agroforest is different from what’s happening three, five, 10 years in.”
These more diverse crop systems provide additional food security for a farming family as well as other sources of income. Meanwhile, the mixed crops benefit from the shade, water retention and natural soil enrichment that comes from sharing space with long-lived, canopy-building trees.
The dense, layered plots resemble natural woodlands more than monoculture farm fields. They create habitat for birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals — for example, one study in Costa Rica found that bats and birds in cacao and banana agroforests were just as species-rich, abundant and diverse as in natural forests (though the species found in them were different).
Agroforests do not need additional fertilizer application, due to the natural inputs of decomposing leaves and fruit. They also tend to require fewer pesticides, as plant diversity provides disease resistance while visiting birds and bats feed on pests. And notably, because the soil doesn’t need to be tilled annually, agroforests can lock away significant amounts of carbon in the soil — by some estimates, between 30 and 300 megagrams (1 megagram = 1 million grams, or 1 metric ton) per square hectare (2.47 square acres).
According to Ragone, it helps that farmers have been using this method to grow breadfruit across the Pacific Islands for thousands of years.
“Agroforestry as a method works so well for breadfruit; conversely, breadfruit works so well for agroforestry,” Ragone explains. “Breadfruit can be the backbone of an agroforest because agroforestry is multidimensional, both over time and space.”
The Breadfruit Institute is one organization that provides farmers with breadfruit trees and the resources to grow them. Their work started to address problems at home: Roughly one-third of Pacific Islanders are food insecure, and the vast majority of food is imported from outside countries. In Hawai’i, an estimated 90% of food comes from off-island. As the Breadfruit Institute has expanded, they’ve provided more than 100,000 saplings to 44 tropical countries, from Micronesia to Ghana to Costa Rica, some with high rates of poverty and food insecurity.
Building local demand amid changing climate
In Puerto Rico, Villalobos mills her own and other local farmers’ breadfruit into a gluten-free flour. She has been collaborating with the Trees That Feed Foundation (TTFF), an Illinois-based nonprofit, to distribute samples of her flour — under the brand Amasar, Spanish for “to knead” — to chefs and help educate Puerto Ricans about breadfruit’s potential. Villalobos and TTFF share a goal of teaching people to value it, which, if successful, will create additional markets for breadfruit products.
“I see a great responsibility to help these farmers to market their product because if you have too much fruit and no market, the trees are vulnerable,” explains Mary McLaughlin, TTFF’s co-founder, a former geologist and artist who grew up in Jamaica and first met breadfruit in an agroforestry plot there.
When farmers first start growing breadfruit and the trees are small, they can rely on sun-loving vegetables planted between them that are easy to sell. TTFF’s model is to help grow local appetites for breadfruit alongside the trees, so that by the time the undergrowth becomes too shady for vegetables, there’s a demand for breadfruit that encourages farmers to plant more trees. Already, McLaughlin sees that market becoming robust, especially in countries like Jamaica where TTFF is well-established.
“When we first started 15 years ago, we had to beg people to plant these trees,” McLaughlin says. “And the breadfruit trees are now in such demand that more and more people want them.”
Even as breadfruit advocates look to the future, climate is always front of mind. Villalobos is already thinking about how harvesting food in breadfruit agroforests, protected by the dense shade, will be safer for workers on the hottest days than working in wide-open farm fields. And as climate change brings stronger storms, her firsthand experience suggests that breadfruit’s resilience will prove essential. After Hurricane Maria, many breadfruit trees in Puerto Rico were the only trees left standing in devastated woodlands. Moreover, because breadfruit trees primarily reproduce by growing shoots, toppled breadfruit trees were growing back within a few months.
“We were eating breadfruit the next year, before we were eating plantains or bananas,” she recalls.
Of course, the future climate isn’t only good news for this tree. Analyzing breadfruit’s potential range under both a stabilized climate and a business-as-normal scenario, the PLOS Climate study predicts the suitability of breadfruit will decline slightly in Latin America and the Caribbean under both scenarios — by around 10.1% in stabilized conditions, and 11.5% under high emissions.
But Nyree Zerega, Yang’s co-author and the director of the plant biology and conservation program at Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden, emphasizes that this estimate is more like a summary of a global data set. As a result, most geographic locations will likely see little change in their local trees, and if more data were included, predictions could be more refined.
“I don’t think we need to fixate on exact numbers but the general trends,” Zerega says. “It makes people aware this is something to pay attention to and study more.”
Yang also adds that it’s important to not see breadfruit as a silver bullet. Though it’s difficult to impossible for breadfruit to become invasive — most cultivated varieties are seedless and can only spread by humans planting cuttings — there are ethical considerations at hand when bringing a non-native tree into a new environment, especially as food systems become increasingly global.
“We want to make sure when breadfruit is introduced, it’s not just something that’s happening without any thought to the context. That people are actually interested in this crop, and it makes sense for them,” Yang says. “We know that food systems are one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss, and breadfruit can be part of changing that, but as a holistic solution — an important piece of the pie in all the changes that need to happen to make food better.”
Banner image: Originally from Southeast Asia, breadfruit trees produce large, potato-like fruits. Image via Pixabay (Public domain).
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Agroforestry is a solution for food security, biodiversity, the climate and more, listen here:
Related coverage here at Mongabay:
Yang, L., Zerega, N., Montgomery, A., & Horton, D. E. (2022). Potential of breadfruit cultivation to contribute to climate-resilient low latitude food systems. PLOS Clim 1(8): e0000062. doi:10.1371/journal.pclm.0000062
Jose, S. (2012). Agroforestry for conserving and enhancing biodiversity. Agroforest Syst 85, 1–8. doi:10.1007/s10457-012-9517-5
Harvey, C.A., González Villalobos, J.A. (2007). Agroforestry systems conserve species-rich but modified assemblages of tropical birds and bats. Biodivers Conserv 16, 2257–2292. doi:10.1007/s10531-007-9194-2
Ramachandran Nair, P.K., Nair, V.D., Kumar, B.M., Showalter, J.M. (2010) Chapter Five – Carbon Sequestration in Agroforestry Systems. Advances in Agronomy, Academic Press, Volume 108, Pages 237-307. ISSN 0065-2113, ISBN 9780123810311, doi:10.1016/S0065-2113(10)08005-3
Lorenz, K., Lal, R. (2014) Soil organic carbon sequestration in agroforestry systems. A review. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 34, 443–454. doi:10.1007/s13593-014-0212-y