Breadfruit, the Tree of Life for a Hungry Planet

By Diane Ragone, Director of the Breadfruit Institute, National Tropical Botanical Garden

Everyone is looking for the next superfood that will improve health and nutrition and alleviate world hunger. Well it is here and it has been here for a long time. Breadfruit has been grown in Oceania for more than 3,000 years, and on many islands the trees form the heart of complex, multispecies agroforests. These food forests are a model for sustainable food production systems and could help us unlock the food security challenges that many parts of the tropical world are facing.

Why breadfruit? Breadfruit is a long-lived perennial tree and is easy to grow in a wide range of ecological conditions with minimal care. Trees begin bearing in 3-4 years, producing a starchy, carbohydrate fruit equivalent to annual staple field crops such as rice, maize, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. It reduces the amount of labor needed to grow crops that require harvesting and replanting, it reduces top soil loss, and it stores carbon. For Pacific island people this became their tree of life. 

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.00.12 PMIn celebration of its 50th anniversary this fall, National Tropical Botanical Garden and its lead partner, the Botany Department of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are hosting an international symposium in Washington, D.C., entitled Agents of Change — Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century. The one-day event will take place on October 7, 2014 at the Museum of Natural History.  Click for details


In the 1970s, the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) recognized the need to conserve breadfruit diversity. I became involved with NTBG in the mid-1980s and traveled to over 50 Pacific Islands collecting hundreds of varieties and documenting traditional practices and knowledge associated with this important crop. Botanic gardens are ideally positioned to do this kind of work because understanding plants and their uses is core to what we do.

We now manage the world’s largest breadfruit repository and thanks to extensive research on this collection it is now possible to grow and distribute breadfruit trees in large numbers to help alleviate hunger. Why is this important? Nearly one billion people worldwide do not have enough to eat. An additional two billion are impacted by “hidden hunger,” the lack of adequate micronutrients. 

Photograph copyright Jim Wiseman
Photograph copyright Jim Wiseman


In 2009, with the help of our partner Cultivaris LLC, (, we launched a Global Hunger Initiative with the goal to distribute breadfruit globally. We are truly inspired by the response and today there are 30 countries, including Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Pakistan, that have received more than 40,000 trees. This work is accomplished through collaboration with myriad individuals and grassroots organizations. It is exciting to see how much global interest there is in this heritage crop.

At our  international symposium in Washington, D.C., entitled: “Agents of Change — Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century,” on Tuesday, October 7, 2014, I am delighted to be joined by Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank; Dr. Eija Pehu, The World Bank; and Dennis Dimick, National Geographic Magazine, on the “Feast or Famine: How we can and will feed 9 Billion People” panel, to discuss strategies, challenges, and opportunities to providing a more food-secure planet.

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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn