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A Brief but Amazing History of Breadfruit

On the Micronesian island of Pohnpei, in 1996, members of the Joseph family cook breadfruit over hot rocks in a traditional stone “oven,” surrounded by their backyard breadfruit agroforest. The rectangular baskets in the foreground, used to carry the fruit to the fire, are made of coconut stems (the stiff, woody part) and woven coconut leaves. Photo by Diane Ragone

Breadfruit, one of the most productive food crops on earth, originated in the South Pacific, in the region spanning modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea. Sometime before 3,000 B.C., ocean explorers from that area and what’s now Taiwan set out across the Pacific to settle new lands, and breadfruit saplings went with them.

Over millennia, as their navigating skills increased, these explorers reached thousands of islands over roughly 20 million square miles—a third of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing Micronesia, Melanesia, and the vast triangle of Polynesia, defined by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island at the outermost points.

 
Woodcut of a breadfruit harvest. Illustration by Dietrich Varez

Breadfruit played a major role in the success of this remarkable migration, furnishing food and a lot more. The light, strong wood was used to build houses and the canoes that carried the navigators on their historic voyages of discovery (and, later, for surfboards). The tree’s sticky white latex was used as a waterproof caulk for the canoes, for glue, to catch birds (the feathers were made into capes and the birds often released), and as chewing gum. The inner bark was beaten into a soft, flexible cloth, and the leaves used to cure infections. Breadfruit flowers, when burned, naturally repelled insects. In traditional Pacific Island communities, these uses for breadfruit continue to this day. All this comes along with the astounding yield of the tree: Up to 800 pounds of nutritious fruit per tree every year, for 50 years or more.

Breadfruit’s abiding presence in Polynesian culture includes religion, too. In one version of a well-known story about the Hawaiian god Kū, the god turns himself into a breadfruit tree to keep his family and village from starving. When a few greedy men run off with all the fruit, the tree withdraws into the ground—because its gifts are meant to be shared, not exploited. The men repent and return the fruit, and the tree grows back for the benefit of all.

 
Illustration of mutineers on a ship setting officers and crew adrift
“The Mutineers turning Lt Bligh and part of the Officers and Crew adrift from His Majesty's Ship the Bounty, 29th April 1789,” National Maritime Museum collection, London. Painting by Robert Dodd/Alamy
From the Pacific to the Caribbean

By the 1700s, traveling Europeans had encountered breadfruit, and were astonished by its productivity. Sir Joseph Banks, a naturalist traveling with Capt. James Cook to Tahiti in 1768, famously said of breadfruit, “…if a man should in the course of his life plant ten such trees he would completely fulfill his duty to his own as well as future generations.” Banks convinced King George III of England that breadfruit would be an ideal food for export to the Caribbean, to feed the enslaved people there.

That set in motion the infamous mutiny on the English ship Bounty, subject of at least three Hollywood movies. In 1789, the breadfruit-laden Bounty set off from Tahiti for the West Indies under the command of Captain William Bligh. Mid-ocean, a crew member named Fletcher Christian assumed control of the ship, tossed Captain Bligh onto a small boat with a few other men, and threw the entire boatload of breadfruit saplings overboard. Bligh miraculously survived, and successfully sailed a second boatload of saplings to Jamaica, landing in 1793. At least one original tree is rumored to still be living.

From Jamaica, breadfruit spread throughout the Caribbean and to other tropical areas as well. Formerly enslaved people from Jamaica took breadfruit to Costa Rica in the 1800s as a reliable source of food for their new lives. Today, those naturalized Costa Rican breadfruit are a promising source of new income for farmers, and we are among their customers, using flour produced from the fruit for our Breadfruit Crackers.

Workers cutting cane on a Hawaiian sugar plantation, pre-1960. California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California Digital Library
The Rise of Modern Agriculture and Western Diets

Starting in the 19th century, plantation-style agriculture of single crops began to take hold throughout the tropics. Huge tracts of sugarcane, bananas, cassava and pineapple started to edge out the traditional “agroforests”—multitiered, intercropped farms—where breadfruit had traditionally been grown.

A century later, processed food rolled in from the West; pizzas and burgers, canned chili and packaged mixes replaced fresh foods grown in the backyard, like breadfruit. In Oceania, obesity and heart disease soared. Meanwhile, hurricanes increased in number and strength, driven by climate change. Breadfruit trees had been a line of defense, not only against malnutrition but also storms, since they held soil in place. Fewer trees left both land and people more vulnerable.

Noel Dickenson walks through gardens and breadfruit trees to harvest basil
Noel Dickinson in the Breadfruit Institute’s Regenerative Organic Breadfruit Agroforest, harvesting holy basil (tulsi), a medicinal herb that’s also an excellent groundcover. Dickinson manages every aspect of this garden, and applies the regenerative organic techniques learned on the job to her family’s 10 acres of neem trees. Photo by Diane Ragone
The Breadfruit Revival

In the past few decades, pioneering individuals and organizations around the world have understood the promise of breadfruit to address modern problems. Springing into action, the Breadfruit Institute in Hawai’i and its director, Dr. Diane Ragone; agroforestry expert Craig Elevitch; Dr. Susan Murch and her breadfruit-propagation team at the University of British Columbia at Okanagan; the University of Hawaii’s Pacific Regional Breadfruit Initiative, directed by Dr. Failatusi Avegalio; and many others have collaborated to restore breadfruit as an important crop for people and planet.

At Patagonia Provisions, we’re honored to join them. We fund the Regenerative Organic Breadfruit Agroforest at the Breadfruit Institute on Kaua’i as well as the Institute’s comprehensive Agroforestry Guide, which helps new farmers learn how to incorporate breadfruit with other plantings. And we’re creating a market for breadfruit, using breadfruit flour, for a line of forthcoming products. Our Honey Sesame Breadfruit crackers are the first food in that line. With our efforts, we salute those who have kept the breadfruit tradition alive for millennia and those working to ensure its place in our future.