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Breadfruit – The Plant That Keeps Giving

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readfruit 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 sugargrowing colonies. And so it was: breadfruit spread to the West Indian islands. Foodwise, breadfruit is a winner, being a highenergy 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 The 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 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

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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 Trinidad and Tobago 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.” 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 Trinidad and Tobago 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,


UWI Pelican Issue 14