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Food of the future

Can the curiously named breadfruit feed a warming world?


In the quest for food sources that can withstand a rapidly changing climate, there’s one conspicuously curious crop: the breadfruit, a spiky green orb native to the Malay Archipelago that’s surprisingly versatile and packed with nutrition.

The starchy fruit, long a staple in the tropics, is attracting new interest globally as farmers and scientists search for crops that are hardier while still nutrient dense. The need is critical. Nearly half of the world’s food calories come from just three crops: rice, wheat, and corn. But all three staples are vulnerable to the extreme heat, changing rainfall, and other impacts of climate change. Researchers estimate yields of wheat and corn could decline as early as 2030.

In the search for the food of the future, agriculturists are rediscovering ancient crops such as amaranth and cowpeas and developing hybrids such as avocados and melons that use less water. And then there’s the breadfruit. The tree that produces the fruit can withstand drought and heat and thrives in rainy conditions. A single tree can yield 300 fruits per year for up to a century, with one of the fruits, which have a potato-like interior, providing enough carbohydrates to feed a family of four. The fruit is also high in fiber, minerals, and vitamins.

Mike and Mary McLaughlin, founders of the Trees That Feed Foundation, examine one of the first breadfruit trees they planted in Jamaica over a decade ago.

Courtesy of Trees That Feed Foundation

Rotary clubs have taken notice of breadfruit’s potential for addressing food insecurity in the face of climate change. After Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas in 2019, destroying homes, farms, and livelihoods, residents received nearly 5,000 breadfruit trees with support from the Rotary clubs of St. Catharines South, Ontario; Niagara Falls Sunrise, Ontario; and Abaco, Bahamas.

Through Rotary clubs’ partnership with the Trees That Feed Foundation, an Illinois-based nonprofit that has a goal of planting 1 million fruit trees in places dealing with food insecurity and poverty, they also have been involved in efforts to plant breadfruit trees in Jamaica, Haiti, and Pakistan.

“With global climate change affecting millions and the starvation of many due to a lack of sustainable food, this program is one of the most important projects supported by Rotary,” says Cathy Henry, a member of the St. Catharines South club.

Left: The spiky green breadfruit is gaining attention for its climate resiliency. Image credit: Getty Images. Right: Trees That Feed Foundation co-founder Mike McLaughlin (left) and Robin Rhoden of the Sydney Pagon STEM Academy in Jamaica with a solar-powered dehydrator designed to preserve breadfruit. Courtesy of Trees That Feed Foundation.

While the breadfruit’s climate-resilient powers are only now being recognized, people in the South Pacific have been eating it for thousands of years. In one of the most famous maritime tales in history about the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, the ship had been transporting breadfruit plants from Tahiti, destined for British colonies in the Caribbean to grow cheap food for enslaved people. (One story has it that Lieutenant William Bligh was hoarding the supply of drinking water for the breadfruit rather than the crew.) The breadfruit plants did not survive the mutiny, but Bligh did, and on a later trip he succeeded in delivering 678 of them to Jamaica and St. Vincent in 1793.

By the numbers

  1. 80-100 years

    Lifespan of a breadfruit tree

  2. 1,000 pounds

    Amount of fruit some varieties produce per tree

  3. 18th century

    Breadfruit introduced to the Caribbean

While the fruit has a dark history entwined with slavery, it became a staple in the Caribbean’s culinary culture and today forms the basis of several beloved island dishes. A close cousin of jackfruit, it can be steamed, roasted, fried, or fermented, as well as dried and ground into flour. And because the trees can live for decades, people in some cultures plant them when children are born to ensure they will have food for life.

As the Earth gets warmer, breadfruit trees are expected to continue to produce fruit at a consistent rate, according to research from Northwestern University in Illinois. In addition, the increased warming could allow the trees to be planted at latitudes farther from the equator. “Twenty years ago, there was almost no breadfruit north of the [Florida] Keys,” or if there were, they didn’t survive long, says Mary McLaughlin, who founded Trees That Feed with her husband, Mike. “Now, we’re seeing breadfruit flourish as far north as Fort Lauderdale.”

Trees themselves have climate benefits, capturing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and returning oxygen to the air. When breadfruit is grown alongside other crops in a strategy known as agroforestry, it creates something of a “living pantry” that not only benefits the farmers but also tends to capture more carbon, McLaughlin says.

The involvement of Rotary members with Trees That Feed began in Jamaica in 2009 after Henry, the Ontario Rotarian, met McLaughlin through a mutual acquaintance. That first project funded trees for school grounds and small, diversified farms already growing a variety of other crops. Over the years, around 30 Rotary clubs have forged a solid partnership with the organization, which considers the clubs a key financial and on-the-ground partner.

But this effort isn’t just about shipping and planting trees. Today, Trees That Feed is helping communities set up operations to dehydrate breadfruit for longer storage and mill it into gluten-free flour, which can be used for countless applications, from biscuits and breads to desserts. Once picked, breadfruit has a short shelf life, so Mike McLaughlin created a solar-powered dehydrator, with help from Northwestern University students, to process extra fruit. The machine blueprint is downloadable for free on the group’s website.

The organization is also assisting women to become vendors of breadfruit products, creating small businesses. “We have spoken to women who have said the money from the fruit from the trees we planted is now helping to pay their child’s school tuition. They’re buying shoes, clothes for their kids,” says Mary McLaughlin. One Jamaican farmer is using his trees as a living pension fund, allowing customers to pick the fruit and pay for what they harvest, she says.

Left: A farmer plants a breadfruit tree in Haiti. Courtesy of Trees That Feed Foundation. Right: Ed Rice, a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Rochelle, Illinois, demonstrates how to make breadfruit flour in Haiti. Courtesy of Trees That Feed Foundation.

Perhaps one of the biggest success stories for Trees That Feed and Rotary clubs has been in Haiti. The Rotary Club of Rochelle, Illinois, helped spearhead the effort there about a dozen years ago, when it paid for breadfruit trees to plant in the island country. The Rotary Club of Calgary at Stampede Park, Alberta, also has been a large source of funding for trees there.

In January, the United Nations World Food Programme confirmed a 15-ton order of breadfruit flour from a business in Haiti for its school food program in the country, McLaughlin says. The recent success is a testament to the project’s emphasis on ensuring it is sustainable for communities to eventually take over.

“This is a ‘teach them how to fish instead of giving them fish’ kind of thing,” says Brenda McKinley, of the Calgary at Stampede Park club. “[Trees That Feed] not only gives them the tree — they give them education on how to plant it, how to take care of it, what to do with the fruit.”

The Calgary club buys 300 breadfruit per month from Pierre Moise Louis, a Haitian entrepreneur mentored by Trees That Feed. Louis grows the trees in a nursery and advises farmers on their care. He bakes konparèts, a snack bread, from the breadfruit flour he makes in his bakery, and the breads are then donated to schools.

“The whole project is from a simple idea from somebody who said, ‘Let’s plant trees that feed people,” Henry says. “Rotary is respected around the globe and has contacts in so many countries. It is easy for us to help where needed to donate a tree, plant a tree, teach youngsters about the importance of the environment, and feed families.”

This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary’s Food Plant Solutions Action Group can provide resources to help address hunger, malnutrition and food security.