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A Polynesian Perspective

The Oahu home of Dr. Failautusi Avegalio, Jr., is surrounded by breadfruit trees. Dr. Tusi also goes by the traditional title of “Papali’i,” conferred on descendants of the Malietoa warrior-king line of Samoa. Photo by Ryan T. Foley

Papali’i Dr. Failautusi “Tusi” Avegalio, Jr., is the Director of the Pacific Business Center Program at the Shidler College of Business, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Raised in both American Samoa and Independent Samoa, he grew up with breadfruit trees as part of his everyday landscape, and sees the enormous potential for this heritage crop worldwide. He shared his thoughts with us in this interview.

Dr Tusi stands in front of lush breadfruit trees holding a Ma'afala breadfruit in one hand and a long wooden stick in the other
Dr. Tusi at home with a Ma’afala breadfruit picked from one of his trees. Golden yellow and slightly browned, it’s at the perfect stage of ripeness for roasting in a traditional Samoan stone oven, or ‘umu. Photo by Ryan T. Foley

Patagonia Provisions: Thank you, Dr. Tusi, for making time to talk with us. What is the first thing you’d like people to know about breadfruit?

Dr. Tusi: Ha! Where should we start? Breadfruit is one of the primary foundations for the survival of the Polynesian race. It’s been central to our navigation and our health.

In ancient times our ancestors migrated across the Pacific, voyaging to new islands in vessels made of breadfruit wood—double-hulled canoes that far exceeded anything else for the next 2,000 years. Some of them were over 60 feet long and caulked with waterproof breadfruit sap, latex. Because the wood had latex in it too, our canoes were super strong and very light—they rode high in the water and skimmed the ocean.

When the voyagers landed in Samoa around 800 B.C., they paused for a thousand years. During the pause, they designed and perfected new sailing crafts and celestial maps, and gained a greater understanding of currents and winds. All this converged and reached critical mass, and there was an explosion of seafarers to the east, north and south—an explosion of sojourns that settled the greatest ocean on the planet. When the explorers headed out to settle new places, they carried baby breadfruit root cuttings with them, somehow keeping them alive for months; modern technology is only just now figuring out how to do that. Wherever they landed, they planted the cuttings. They knew the next voyagers would need food.

This was a sophisticated level of planning, coupled with the ability to find little sandbars in thousands of miles of sea. You’re talking about genius. Some of the demigods we have today, like Maui and Kanaloa, were probably pioneer navigators who became deified over the centuries.

Woodcut of a Polynesian outrigger canoe, loaded with breadfruit. Illustration by Dietrich Varez

Other parts of the breadfruit tree were used too. Dried breadfruit flowers and leaves were burned to keep insects away. The bark was pounded for clothing, and the leaves were also good for making a lotion for the skin and for treating infections. Even today, the first responsibility of a Samoan child is to go out and collect the fallen breadfruit leaves in the morning, to use for lotion or tea. I did it, and so did my children, and my grandchildren do too.

Now the flowers have been found to contain three compounds more potent than DEET. The leaves and flowers have squalene, a compound that moisturizes the skin and improves elasticity and is in high demand by the cosmetics industry. Squalene is usually extracted from shark livers, so having a plant-based source from breadfruit could save the lives of millions of sharks. Squalene is even being tested as a source for a COVID 19 vaccine! All this validates our traditional wisdom.

As for the fruit itself, it’s a source of plant protein that is also gluten free and low glycemic. If you eat a breadfruit—‘ulu in Hawaiian—fresh from a traditional rock oven, it’s like a firm pudding, with an aroma and flavor so familiar and comforting that it gives you a sense of intimacy to eat it.

When I was growing up, we cooked the breadfruit whole, and it was about sharing as much as eating. Children were in one group, and the elders in another. We’d put the breadfruit in front of an elder and he’d smash it with his hand, so everyone would get a piece. It wasn’t “I get one whole ‘ulu for myself.” The sharing is fundamental to our cultural values.

When processed, imported foods pushed out traditional foods like breadfruit in the mid 20th century, what kind of impact did that have on the culture?

Before 1950, you wouldn’t see obese Pacific Islanders. Now obesity and heart disease are off the charts. Breadfruit offers an alternative to processed foods. Also, when you think of supply chains breaking down during Covid, and given Hawaii is 90% dependent on imports, my memories of breadfruit come flooding back. When I was a kid, there was such an abundance—we never felt as though we wouldn’t have more. We need to reaffirm and honor the gifts of our ancestors.

The challenge is, kids won’t eat traditional forms of breadfruit. But they will eat pizza and pasta. We don’t have to change the essence; we just have to change the form.

For example, the Ma’afala variety of ‘ulu is best for making flour—it’s richer than wheat flour. As a crust for pizza, it enhances the ingredients in the topping. When you bite into it, the blend is exquisite.

What about the custom of giving a breadfruit sapling to a newborn child, so they’d have a lifetime of food? Is that still done?

Unfortunately, as breadfruit has been supplanted by imported foods, that tradition has gone away. The birthday gift is now an envelope of money or some material thing manufactured overseas. When ‘ulu is still given, usually it’s by traditional families who don’t have the economic wherewithal to purchase something from the store. Little do we realize that the store purchase has the least value, compared to the tree of life.

Close photo of breadfruit blossom with bee
A breadfruit tree blossoms in Dr. Tusi’s home garden. Photo by Ryan T. Foley

Several years ago, you helped launch a Global Breadfruit Summit that meets annually, and interest in breadfruit continues to grow. Now many groups are involved with bringing breadfruit back—and some are part of a new multilayered breadfruit initiative you’re developing at the University of Hawaii. What does that project involve?

With our Pacific Islands Breadfruit Initiative, we’re bringing together multiple partners, including the Breadfruit Institute and the Pacific Islands Farmers Organization Network. The key is supply to meet the market demand. Hawai’i does not have enough breadfruit; it was all cut down to plant Western crops. So it’s critical to establish relationships with farmers across the Pacific Islands. There are about 2 million trees in Oceania, and each tree bears a conservative estimate of 700 pounds per year. They fruit so prolifically that roughly 80% of the breadfruit rots. We can put over a billion pounds of breadfruit per annum to good use, with local processors to dehydrate the fruit. To power the dehydrators, we’re working on a technology that generates heat by converting carbon-based waste into fertilizer. The system is retrofitted to shipping containers for easy deployment. Our third component is a water harvesting technology that can process ocean water for agriculture, as well as industry and drinking.

From the individual islands, the breadfruit will go to a collection center in Samoa, then on to Hawaii to mill into flour and package for local use as well as for export.

‘Ulu can provide a way to weave traditional wisdom with modern science and technology to assure greater human health, a cleaner environment, and a healthier planet with an emphasis on stakeholders—not just shareholders. 

I used to model my business development plans from a Western perspective. But then I began to understand the native wisdom of symbiosis and synergy. There’s a wonderful quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society where we have forgotten the gift and honored the servant.” If the finest brain of the 20th century made that statement, I thank him and say to him, “You obviously have interacted with my ancestors.”

Modern monocrop plantations have replaced traditional, multicrop farms throughout Polynesia and particularly in Hawai’i. How does that factor into the revival of breadfruit?

Growing up in Samoa, we lived in the middle of fruit-tree agroforests. Mango, breadfruit, sugarcane, guava. It never occurred to us that it was anything other than normal. In the Pacific Islands, ‘ulu is grown with its family—its ohana, other trees that are endemic to this region, like guava, bananas, papaya, sugarcane and mango. They thrive together and protect each other, and don’t do as well when they stand alone. Farmers have year-round harvests from different fruit trees and vegetables that mature at different times, assuring a continuous and natural food production cycle. The value of this traditional system far exceeds anything you can put in the bank. This is regeneration, respect and love for the tree, versus extracting from it as fast and as profitably as possible.

I didn’t know what monocropping was until I was a college student in Kansas. Orchards upon orchards of apple. Vast oceans of wheat. And corn in Nebraska and Iowa that went on for miles, with no variation. I learned that it required tons and tons of chemicals to keep it that way. For those of us who see the earth as our mother, that’s not only poisonous for us, it’s hurting her too.

We need to meet the essential needs of humans in ways that heal us spiritually and heal the earth. It doesn’t require resources—just an adjustment in thinking. As Director of the Pacific Business Center, I had to struggle a bit because the emphasis has been on “sustainable economic development.” The problem with “sustainability” is that it maintains the status quo. And on our islands, the status quo is extractive and degenerative.

So I spent time with elders, asking them, “How did your community, your village survive all these years? You’ve been here since 800 B.C. How is it you’re still here, with limited resources?” And they basically said, “By giving back in full measure the aloha of our mother.” And I realized that this is where we need to go. Regeneration through restoring and revitalizing the energies taken from Mother Earth. How else could the villagers have lived? If they had been strictly extractive, they would all have been dead. Instead, they understand and conform to the cycle of nature. How the land is treated is more important than how it can be used. If you treat it right, it can be used forever.

That’s why our greatest fear is monocropping, because it will endanger the harmony. Unless there’s holistic thinking, unless these companies understand and respect indigenous agriculture enough to at least listen, they’ll put everything at risk.

A grandfather, a father, and a son in traditional Samoan clothing, shot from the back sitting in a row on a woven mat in a garden
Papali’i Dr. Failautusi “Tusi” Avegalio, Jr., his son Talavou Jarrod Avegalio, and his grandson Palepoi Te’i, in the garden at Dr. Tusi’s home. Dr. Tusi and his son have traditional Samoan tatau (tattoos), a reminder of cultural values that include love, respect, service and integrity, and a deep connection to earth and ocean. Photo by Linda Avegalio

Here is an ancient Hawaiian story about breadfruit:

The god Kū fell in love with a mortal woman and relinquished some of his godly traits to be with her. Then a massive famine hit their village. Knowing his responsibility to protect ohana (family) and aina (land), Kū told his wife that he had to leave. As he walked away from their home, he began sinking into the ground until he had completely disappeared. She stood over that spot, watering it with her tears…and the next day, leaves had begun to sprout there. And then a breadfruit tree.

That night, as she slept, Kū came to her in her dreams and showed her how to peel and cook the fruit of the tree in fire. She did so, and everyone from the village came and ate, and starvation was avoided. But in the night, some greedy men ran off with the rest of the breadfruit to use for bartering. Immediately the tree withdrew into the ground. This caused a great collective anguish. Kū’s wife, again channeling her husband, told the people that ‘ulu was meant to be given freely, as a gift of aloha. The thieves repented, and the tree grew back.

The core values of ‘ulu are: Engage with humility, embrace with respect, and sustain with aloha. And these remain today.