Marisol Villalobos has her routine with her breadfruit trees: almost every morning, as the sun is just emerging on the horizon, she drives to her orchard nestled on Mount Jayuya, Puerto Rico. There, she gets out of her car and takes the time to inhale the thick scent of flowers, dead leaves and ripe fruit. As she listens to the cries of parrots and cuckoos in the canopy, she blesses her trees and thinks, as she often does, that it is only fitting that in Puerto Rican they are called pana, a word also used to refer to a very close friend.
Because for Villalobos, and probably for humanity, the breadfruit appears as a friend who has a lot to offer: a versatile source of food, a potential protection of biodiversity and perhaps even a solution to the multiple problems of climate crisis.
Producing a bountiful annual crop of starchy, nutritious fruit with the same applications as the potato, breadfruit provides farmers with a reliable staple crop that requires little maintenance once mature. In addition, a recent study published in PLOS Climate predicts that breadfruit’s range will expand with rising temperatures due to climate change, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
“We know that many essential crops in the world, such as rice, corn or wheat, will be heavily impacted by climate change”, says Lucy Yang, researcher in environmental science and co-author of the study, which she participated in while a student at Northwestern University. “But breadfruit can be a centerpiece for biodiversity. It is extremely nutritious and the main point of this article is that it is an important solution for regions of the world located at low latitudes which, precisely, also suffer from food insecurity.
Booming breadfruit tree
So many campaigners are encouraging farmers to multiply the benefits of breadfruit by planting it in agroforestry plots alongside other crops rather than in spaced rows in dedicated orchards.
Breadfruit can be paired with mango, avocado, coconut, or banana, and together they help with soil water retention and provide shade. Under their canopy, farmers can plant shade-preferring crops such as coffee, cocoa, turmeric, ginger or cassava. At the edge of this “forest”, they can also sow yams, sweet potatoes, peppers or tomatoes which will thus take advantage of both the sunshine and the nutrients provided by the trees.
“It really depends on the family and the farmer, what they like to eat and what flowers or medicinal plants they prefer to harvest,” says Diane Ragone, founder and director of the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden of Hawaii.
These dense multi-tiered plots look more like natural forests than monoculture fields. For example, a study in Costa Rica showed that bird and bat assemblages in cocoa and banana agroforests were just as abundant and diverse in species as natural forests (although the species there are different).
Agroforests do not require the addition of fertilizers thanks to the natural inputs resulting from the decomposition of leaves and fruits. They also tend to require fewer pesticides since the diversity of plants provides resistance to disease while the birds and bats that visit them feed on the pests. It should also be noted that, since it is not tilled each year, the soil of agroforests can sequester significant amounts of carbon: between 30 and 300 megagrams (1 megagram = 1 million grams, or 1 metric ton) per hectare- square according to some certain estimates .
This former geologist and artist grew up in Jamaica, where she discovered breadfruit for the first time on an agroforestry plot.
When they start growing breadfruit trees and they are still small, farmers can plant sun-loving, easy-to-sell vegetables around them. TTFF’s model aims to grow local interest in breadfruit trees as they mature so that when the understory becomes too shady for vegetables, there is demand encouraging farmers to plant more. . McLaughlin already sees this market solidifying, especially in countries like Jamaica where TTFF is well established.
“There is such a demand for breadfruit trees now, more and more people want them.
Even as breadfruit advocates look to the future, the climate remains at the center of their concerns. Already, Villalobos imagines how, on the hottest days, harvesting in breadfruit agroforests will be, thanks to the shade provided by the dense canopy, safer for workers than in large open fields. And as climate change brings more violent storms, his personal experience suggests that breadfruit’s resilience will prove essential. After Hurricane Maria, many breadfruit trees in Puerto Rico were the only ones still standing amid devastated forests. Also, because they reproduce primarily through the growth of suckers, breadfruit trees that had been knocked down grew back within a few months.
Of course, the future climate isn’t just good news for this tree. By analyzing the potential distribution area of breadfruit, the study published in PLOS Climate predicts a slight decline in its adaptive capacity in Latin America and the Caribbean, both under stable climatic conditions (about 10.1%) and in a high emissions scenario (11.5%).
Nyree Zerega, co-author of Yang’s study and director of the plant biology and conservation program at Northwestern and the Chicago Botanical Garden, points out, however, that this estimate is more like a digest of global data. So most geographies will see a slight change in their local trees, but predictions could be refined with the inclusion of additional data.
“It makes people realize that this is something that needs to be paid attention to and studied more. »
Yang also adds that it’s important not to view breadfruit as a miracle cure. Although it is difficult, if not impossible, for breadfruit to become an invasive species (most cultivated varieties do not produce seeds and can only be spread by planting cuttings by humans), it There are ethical considerations to be had when introducing a non-native tree species into a new environment. All the more so with the increasing globalization of food systems.
“We want to make sure that the introduction of the breadfruit tree doesn’t happen without any consideration for the context. People need to really care about this culture and make sense to them,” says Yang. “We know that food systems are one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss, and breadfruit can help change that, but as a holistic solution: a big piece of the cake in all the changes that need to happen. produce to improve food.