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.