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April 9th, 2015

Breadfruit Redux

BY Christian Ford

It was a bit over 200 years ago that the globe began its transformation from a society powered by muscle to one fueled by fossils, so to speak.  One of the many footnotes of that transformation was how the breadfruit tree — a vital strategic resource in the 18th century — became meaningless.  So meaningless that the only reason “breadfruit tree” is even vaguely familiar is because of the melodrama that accompanied England’s attempt to obtain it.  This, of course, was the mutiny aboard his majesty’s ship Bounty, or rather Nordhoff and Hall’s extravagantly fictionalized Mutiny on the Bounty.

You can read about the intrigue that swirled around the breadfruit during its brief heyday, but the short version is that conflict with the fledgling United States cut off the cheap food that Britain depended upon to feed the slaves of its West Indian plantations.  It was an energy crisis for Britain’s immensely valuable sugar industry and an exact parallel of the dynamic which rules the modern US’s relationship with the petrostates of the Middle East — can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

But the Brits believed they had an alternative.  The breadfruit tree, native to the islands of the South Seas, was what venture capitalists would now shill as a “disruptive technology.”  A large, long-lived tree, it yields bowling ball sized fruits in amazing quantity.  While modern, industrialized farms produce rice at four tons per acre and wheat at two, breadfruit drops between six and thirteen tons per acre and the only human participation required is collecting the bounty.

Pioneering British explorer-botanist Joseph Banks laid eyes upon this looming tree and heard the poetry of King James’ bible in his head.  God, to be specific, railing at Adam while driving him from the Garden of Eden:

cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.

As if Tahiti didn’t look enough like Eden, here on its shores Banks found the kind of tree that must have flowered there — an extravagant, no-labor-required gift of food.  Banks’ enthusiasm for the breadfruit tree gave William Bligh his star-crossed role in history, which turned out to be the two expeditions and seven years it took to bring breadfruit to the West Indies, where it still grows today.  As a food for slaves, however, it was a complete failure.

There were reasons.  For one thing, no one knew how to prepare it.  For another, the highest yielding plants were seedless and so had to be propagated by more sophisticated  mechanisms, cuttings, air layerings and the like.  All that took time and breadfruit didn’t have time because the transition from muscle to coal power was already en route to making slaves obsolete.  So breadfruit faded from the scene.

But something funny happened over the two-plus centuries since then.  Slaves by and large exited the scene, but there were still lots of overworked and underpaid people out there, and around the turn of the 21st century, a billion of them were just as hungry as the slaves of the British sugar plantations.  The one-time colonies had regained their freedom, but now they were developing nations with export economies, their agriculture geared to deliver staples to the rich nations.  Export economies are supposed to be a good deal both ways, a steady supply of cheap needables for the first world and a good income for the third.

But there are downsides.  Farmers in export economies almost inevitably abandon their local agriculture — the one they originally fed themselves with — in order to produce the cash crops for export.  The idea is that the pay is better, so that you can earn enough to improve your standard of living and still have money left over to purchase food and sometimes it works like that.  But world markets have palpitations and when they’re big enough, the export economies end up whipsawed, without enough cash to buy dinner and unable to subsist on the cotton and palm oil that fill their fields.

You could call this market failure, a bug of our globalized economy, but I suspect it’s closer to a feature than a bug.  Why else would World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have spent the last half century requiring the conversion to an export economy as a frequent precondition to the helping hand of financial aid?

It took a while, but people on the short end of that stick have started to notice.

The World Social Forum met last month in Tunis, where farmers and food sovereignty campaigners from all over the world came together to exchange experiences of how changes in food systems create social changes.  The story was the same, regardless of whether it came from Senegal, Chile, Bangladesh or Italy — taking local democratic control of food production not only yields better livelihoods for the farmers, but also drives economic and social liberation for women.

In an irony which only goes to prove that history’s sense of humor is black, another meeting about the future of African farming took place at the same time.  This one was in London, where the the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition came together.  The exact location was not released to the public, and neither, for that matter, was the agenda.  But we can probably make an accurate guess when we take a gander at the guest list — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, Britain’s equivalent of USAID, and a host of agribusiness corporations.  I’m sure more than a few words were said about the benevolent and paternal intentions of the participants, but one does wonder just what their vision of a better future for African farmers looks like, considering that no African farmers received any invites.

Sure, you could call me a cynic for viewing these initiatives as flimsy cover for flooding Africa with more agribusiness products and intellectual property to further extract profit from the continent — particularly if you define cynic as someone whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.  Maybe it’s the mendacity of it all that offends my delicate sensibilities.   Eighty percent of global food cash ends up in the hoppers of agribusinesses with mottos that are all variants of “Feeding the World,” while small farmers like the ones who gathered in Tunis are the ones actually growing 80% of the world’s food.  It’s as though the colonial powers retreated to their homelands, but left a mutated version of the colonial system still in place, only now without the moral obligations of being in charge.

Even for cultures that have learned the hard lesson, getting out of an export economy is harder than getting in.  Farming, after all, takes time.  What, exactly, do you eat in the gap between when you plough under the export crop and harvest the food crop?  It’s a trap, and it doesn’t take much imagination to sense the uneasy parallel between these modern export plantations and their slave-powered forebears in the West Indies and the American South.  That, amazingly enough, is where breadfruit comes in again.  And again it starts with a botanist.

Diane Ragone is a spiritual heir to Joseph Banks, captivated by the unrealized potential of breadfruit.  But unlike Banks, she lived and worked in the South Seas and so she was able to pursue her breadfruit research for some thirty years.  It paid off in 2003, with the establishment of the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawai’i, host of the world’s largest collection of breadfruit varieties.  Among those varieties, Ragone has identified the crown jewel of the breadfruit continuum, a Samoan variant called Ma’afala that is a champion in both production and nutrition.

The breadfruit is probably best thought of as a sort of tree-born potato.  It’s starchy and bland, but has significantly more nutrition than a potato. Fascinatingly, the fruit is edible at all stages of development.  The small green ones work as a vegetable, tasting similar to artichoke hearts.  The mature fruits are the potatoes, big and starchy, amenable to baking, boiling, frying, roasting and steaming.  And the fully ripe version is definitely a fruit, sweet and desert-like.

The breadfruit tree tends to unload its huge gift of food in very short order, and in equally short order, the stuff ferments.  Fortunately, it can be shredded and dried for storage and, more significantly, easily processed into a superior gluten-free flour.

It has other tricks, too.  Breadfruit flower is an excellent insect repellent.  It produces a latex so sticky that it can be used to trap animals, and has traditionally been used as a marine-grade caulk and even as a chewing gum.  Fabric can be made from the tree’s fiber, which can be harvested without killing the tree.

In short, it’s a hell of a plant.

The only problem is that you can’t just ship seeds to everyone who might want one of these food factories growing in their back yard.  But that problem has finally been solved in a British Columbia lab, where in vitro propagation of breadfruit has been perfected.  The technical details are beyond me, but the upshot is clear: pretty much anyone anywhere who wants a breadfruit tree can now have one.

The Breadfruit Institute has partnered with the Trees that Feed Foundation and an outfit called Global Breadfruit (an offshoot of the rather ominously-named horticulture company Cultivaris) to spread the knowledge and the trees to places that need it, like Haiti, Africa and even the southernmost edge of Pakistan.

Breadfruit has the potential to make real change in Africa.  The trees start bearing in only two or three years, and — unlike other African staples such as cassava and yams — they require almost no labor.  The goal here is not to replace existing foods, but to supplement them.

A breadfruit tree by the house is a multigenerational safety net of nutrition that can make the difference between subsisting and starving when the other harvests fall short, when civil war empties the fields, when disease turns communities into quarantine wards.  AIDS and HIV are part of the equation, too.  With the sickness endemic in much of Africa, an unusual number of people are susceptible to opportunistic infections that strike when nutrition is poor.

Still, I have reservations.  Without doubting in the slightest the motives of the breadfruit champions, I have to say that the plan is pure industrial age thinking — solve a problem created by the global economic monoculture by creating a global agricultural monoculture.   The propagation technology is making armies of genetically identical breadfruit clones and industrial ag has been singing that song long enough that we know — for certain — that this is a fool’s errand.  If you line up a world-spanning girdle of plants with identical weaknesses then some bug, fungus, disease is going to belly up to the buffet.  Just ask the banana growers.

But… it’ll work for a while.  And maybe that’s good enough.

There’s an immense looping arc of history showing itself here and breadfruit, remarkably enough, bookends both ends.   The muscle to coal transformation that obsoleted breadfruit is now in the process of obsoleting itself.  What’s coming next is anyone’s guess, but I’d be surprised if it included quite so many corporate behemoths, not just because they’ve worn out their welcome, but because they are creatures of a world with energy to burn, and that world is slinking off, stage right.  So it seems both right and fitting that the slave chow which Britain tried to fob off on their chattels only to have them reject it, is now being embraced by their distant descendants as a means of gaining freedom.

Maybe I’ll have to change my definition of cynic.


Breadfruit Bearer by Dr. Colleen Morgan
Bligh’s Tomb by O.F.E.
National Tropic Botanical Garden by Glennia
Breadfruit in Africa by Scamperdale
Tree of Many Uses by USDA