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Breadfruit Institute

Hawai’i (Kaua’i and Mau’i)
Before establishing the National Tropical Botanical Garden's Breadfruit Institute in Hawai'i as its founding director, Diane Ragone spent decades researching and collecting breadfruit across the Pacific Islands. As part of her work, she interviewed regional and local experts to understand traditional customs and knowledge surrounding this ancestral crop. Here she talks with Matafaga Loa in Olosega Village, Manu'a Islands, American Samoa.
Photo by Jim Wiseman

Not many fruits deserve their own institute, but breadfruit does. The Breadfruit Institute, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in Hawaii, is the world’s leading resource for this incredible food. Its mission: to research, preserve, and propagate breadfruit to be used for food and reforestation in tropical countries throughout the world.

Dr. Diane Ragone, the Institute’s director, has devoted nearly her entire working life to breadfruit—35 years. She’s opened our eyes to agroforestry as a game-changing alternative to industrial agriculture and has introduced us to potential partners around the world, including our breadfruit farming and flour partner in Costa Rica.

Farmers planting banana and breadfruit trees in an agroforest in Kaua'i
Planting bananas next to breadfruit at the Regenerative Organic Breadfruit Agroforest (ROBA) at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua’i. Photo by Amy Kumler

Building a Treasury of Breadfruit for All

“I got hooked on breadfruit through reading about it, before I ever tasted it,” Diane says. While researching a paper on breadfruit as a horticulture grad student at the University of Hawaii in the early 1980s, she was enthralled by the rich history of the fruit, stretching back thousands of years in Oceania. It was a cornerstone of civilization in many island cultures, supplying building materials and food, woven into family celebrations and religion. Hundreds of varieties existed, and the tree seemed almost divinely ordained to nourish life, growing to maturity in just a few years and bearing staggering yields of up to 800 pounds per tree, per year, for up to 50 years.

Diane also found documents from the 1920s, and more from the 1950s, revealing that breadfruit was at risk, even then: varieties were rapidly disappearing due to hurricanes and the pressures of modern plantation agriculture. Ancient knowledge, passed down for generations, was disappearing too. “That’s when I decided,” she remembers. “Something needed to be done.” She formed a plan to collect as many breadfruit varieties as possible throughout the Pacific Islands, starting in Samoa, and bring them back to the NTBG for conservation, research and propagation.

Close shot of hands holding a collection tag for a breadfruit tree
A collection tag from one of 150 varieties collected by Dr. Diane Ragone, now planted at the National Tropical Botanical Garden's Kahanu Garden on Mau’i. Photo by Amy Kumler

Over the next couple of decades, Diane traveled to 50 Pacific Islands, eventually collecting (with the permission of all the communities and chiefs) hundreds of varieties and documenting customs and traditions. By 2003, when the Breadfruit Institute was officially launched, she and the NTBG team had created a research grove of 150 breadfruit varieties on Maui, forming the world’s largest resource for scientific study.

Spreading the Wealth

In 2009, with local and international partners, the Breadfruit Institute formed the Global Hunger Initiative to send trees propagated from its collection to tropical countries throughout the world. A benefit-sharing arrangement was put in place with the Samoan government to distribute three Samoan breadfruit varieties that Diane had conserved, the first of several such agreements with countries of origin. To date, the partners—including a research team led by Dr. Susan Murch at the University of British Columbia at Okanagan, and the horticultural company Cultivaris—have propagated and sent more than 100,000 saplings to 44 tropical countries, places where rates of hunger and poverty are highest.

During her fieldwork, Diane gained a deep appreciation for the traditional Pacific way of growing breadfruit—in agroforests, “agricultural forests” that combine plants of different heights, as in a wild forest. It offers solutions to various problems at once, including giving the farmer multiple sources of food and income year-round, building soil health and providing a fast way to reforest land wrecked by the effects of climate change.

To create an example of what agroforestry can do, especially when grown with regenerative organic practices, the Breadfruit Institute—with support from Patagonia Provisions—planted a regenerative organic breadfruit agroforest at the NTBG’s McBryde Garden on Kaua’i. In three years, on just 2 acres, it has produced nearly 9,000 pounds of ‘ulu (Hawaiian for breadfruit); nearly 7,000 pounds of food other than breadfruit (dozens of crops including starfruit, pineapple, buckwheat and several kinds of spinach); and 1,300 ornamentals (flowers)—all the while turning compacted, waterlogged soil into a biodiverse and beautiful garden.

In the past few years, corporate agribusiness has been showing strong interest in developing breadfruit as a new gluten-free product, farmed plantation-style in the tropics and sold as a commodity crop. “Regenerative organic agriculture—and Patagonia's leadership in this—shows another path,” Diane says. “One that values and builds upon centuries of traditional practices of growing breadfruit in mixed plantings, not as a monoculture crop.”

Diane believes, as do we, that thousands of small farms growing breadfruit in agroforests would maximize income and food security for communities that need them most. This, she says, is “how breadfruit can be brought to the marketplace in a way that addresses the challenges we face for people and the planet.”

Man in brimmed hat looks at plants behind educational sign in garden in Kaua'i
Longtime NTBG volunteer Frank Hay admires one many plants thriving in the ROBA garden, Kaua’i. Funding for the garden, as well as for agroforestry education and community outreach, is made possible by Patagonia Provisions and the Ceres Trust. Photo by Neil Brosnahan

To support growers everywhere and spark the imagination of anyone interested in breadfruit, the Institute has a website with deep information on all its projects, workshops, and forms of community involvement, including a comprehensive guide on agroforestry available as a free download.