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Tapping into breadfruit’s bounty

BY HARMEET SINGH | APR 06 2009

This starchy fruit caused a mutiny on the Bounty, but tapping into its bounty is the goal of Susan Murch, a professor of plant biochemistry at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Dr. Murch, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Natural Products Chemistry, is part of an international effort to cultivate and distribute breadfruit trees to help solve food security issues in the developing world.

“The reason it’s a really amazing food source is a single tree produces between 150 and 200 kg of food,” says Dr. Murch. Nutritionally, breadfruit is high in carbohydrates and a good source of dietary fiber. According to the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, it can be roasted, baked, boiled, fried, pickled, fermented, frozen, and dried and ground into flour or starch.

Breadfruit has been grown throughout the Pacific for more than 3,000 years, but the plant’s diversity is now in decline – with some varieties already gone – due to tropical storm damage, climate change and a loss of traditional knowledge.

The trees reproduce through root cuttings or suckers and are difficult to transport and transplant. The HMS Bounty was transporting breadfruit cuttings from the Pacific to the Caribbean when the famous mutiny occurred in 1789. The uprising was sparked in part by the rationing of fresh water to keep the breadfruit trees alive.

Dr. Murch, in collaboration with Diane Ragone at the Breadfruit Institute, has developed a technique to propagate the breadfruit plant in tissue culture. Many North American food crops are produced this way, but her group is the first to make it work with breadfruit.

This success has led to high commercial demand for the fruit and Dr. Murch is now working with a California company, Cultivaris, to mass-produce and distribute the trees. A portion of the money made from the tree sales, she says, will go towards development projects, especially in Samoa, the source of the original plant material for the project.

“Initially, the ultimate goal was to provide trees for food security,” says Dr. Murch. The project’s goal has now shifted to learning more about the different varieties of breadfruit. She and her colleagues are working to discover which varieties have the highest nutritional value, as well as which types grows best where.

Canada’s climate is not conducive to the cultivation of breadfruit, but its success elsewhere could be felt here. Breadfruit can provide gluten-free flour, which is ideal for people with food allergies, and processed breadfruit can be used as a high-protein, low-fat additive to snack foods, says Dr. Murch. Her research team is working to develop varieties that could be grown as greenhouse crops for the Canadian market.

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  1. Tony Beonde, Ph.D. / August 13, 2009 at 19:34

    Dr. Susan Murch:

    My wife and I lived overseas (1970s – 9 years) in Swaziland (Africa) and American Samoa. During the Pacific years (1975-1980) we traveled extensively throughout the entire South Pacific. We presently live in Stuart, Florida (100 miles north of Miami)on the coast. In the Pacific we loved the breadfruit tree and eating the fruit. I found your article interesting since you are using the Samoan variety for tissue culture. As I recall the Samoan cultivar is a small tree and the fruit is not as large as some other cultivars. Have you had success in growing them in greenhouses? I ask, because even at the Fairchild Gardens in Miami, they have trouble protecting them outside. They do grow and fruit well in Key West, but that is 200 miles south of us. Please let me know as some day I would love to grow one in a plastic greenhouse here to protect it from our winter temperatures which can drop occasionally below 50 degrees and every 20 years down to near 32 degrees for a couple of hours. Presently in my yard I have two varieties of coconut trees (doing very well), mangoes, 15 varieties of bananas, lychee, etc. All do well here and the cold over the last 30 years has not done much damage to them at all.

    Thank you for any information you might be able to provide.