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Reviving Breadfruit, the Polynesian Staple, Could Nourish People and Fight Climate Change

Reviving Breadfruit, the Polynesian Staple, Could Nourish People and Fight Climate Change

Promoted as the next superfood, breadfruit just might be the world’s most ecological carbohydrate, and on the verge of a much-needed renaissance in Hawaii and beyond.

Diane Ragone works in a food forest that she has spent many years cultivating at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. From the ground to mid-canopy, the forest is home to more than 100 plant species, but there is one ancient, enormous tree that stands out: breadfruit.

The melon-sized, lizard-skinned fruit, also known as ‘ulu, has been at the center of Ragone’s research and advocacy for nearly four decades—and for good reason. The flowering tree is native to the Pacific Islands and can also be found in tropical regions throughout the developing world. When cooked, it develops a starchy, dense consistency similar to that of a potato.

And while it was once a popular staple food all over the Pacific rim, it was largely replaced by other more “modern” foods over the course of the last century.

“There was a decline, and that’s what precipitated my Ph.D research and fieldwork in collecting breadfruit varieties,” explains Ragone, who directs the Breadfruit Institute at the botanical garden. “Much of it had to do with changing food habits and production systems after World War II.”

After the war, food production became an ultra-commodified industry run by a new set of economic principles and global trade, shifting once agrarian societies into cash economies. Hawaii’s agriculture had already been dominated by the coffee, pineapple, and sugar industries, and many of the foods that were central to Native Hawaiian foodways were replaced by crops grown specifically for export. Today roughly 90 percent of the region’s food is imported, leaving the islands vulnerable in crises and natural disasters.

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