Bread is made from flour, but Susan Murch hopes to turn breadfruit into flour – photo courtesy of Susan Murch
UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 12 | Dec.
By Raina Ducklow and Bud Mortenson
Any way you slice it, breadfruit is a big deal.
A traditional Polynesian crop grown throughout the Pacific for more than 3,000 years, breadfruit’s diversity is now declining — some varieties have already disappeared — due to damage from tropical cyclones, climate change, and loss of cultural knowledge.
Susan Murch, Canada Research Chair in Natural Products Chemistry at UBC Okanagan, hopes to not only preserve breadfruit from further decline, she’s working on ways to make it much more abundant — improving food security in tropical regions and creating new food products for North American tables.
“Every four seconds someone in the tropics dies of hunger. It is one of the biggest food security issues in the world at the moment,” says Murch. “Breadfruit is a tree that most people in North America have not heard of, but has huge value for food security. A single tree can produce 150 to 200 kilograms of food per year. But distribution of breadfruit to feed people who are starving has been limited by difficulties propagating and transporting the trees.”
Breadfruit, which reproduces through suckers or root cuttings, doesn’t do well in transport. Murch points to some infamous history that links the breadfruit tree to the 1789 mutiny on the HMS Bounty.
“The whole point of the Bounty’s journey was to go out to Oceania, to collect trees and bring them back to produce food in the Caribbean,” she says. “Part of the reason for the mutiny was that the ship’s fresh water was being used for the breadfruit trees, rather than allowing the sailors to drink it.”
More than 200 years later, breadfruit continues to be a prized source of high-energy food, but it remains hard to reproduce and international quarantine requirements on root materials make distribution difficult. Only now is science beginning to make this invaluable tree easier to reproduce and send where it’s most needed.
At a field station at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in Maui, Hawaii, Murch is working with a collection of 230 70-foot-tall breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) trees. The collection was established in the 1970s and 1980s by Diane Ragone, a world expert on breadfruit, and each tree is a unique variety collected from a different Pacific island, with different leaf shapes, nutritional composition and environmental requirements. It’s an important and rare collection, vulnerable to damage from a natural disaster such as one of the Pacific’s great cyclones.
Murch’s team is eagerly developing new ways to maintain, conserve, mass propagate, and distribute the most beneficial traditional varieties using modern techniques of plant tissue culture and biotechnology.
“My work is all about the nutrition in breadfruit, and the distribution of breadfruit,” Murch says, explaining that in Hawaii and at her UBC Okanagan lab, her team has learned how to grow the trees in bioreactors. Though many North American food crops are produced this way, Murch is the first to make it work with breadfruit, and this new way of reproducing breadfruit trees is already having a big impact on the plant’s distribution.
Last year, Murch’s lab donated 7,500 trees for food security to tropical nations but she was quickly swamped with requests for more trees than she could possibly produce in the research facility. To produce enough trees, Murch has partnered with the NTBG, the government of Western Samoa, and a commercial horticultural company — Cultivaris in San Diego, California — to mass-produce and distribute trees.
“If our research can have a positive impact on food security and provide food in regions where there isn’t enough food, that is a valuable contribution,” she says.
In addition to distributing breadfruit trees in the tropics, Murch is investigating how to use the plant to improve nutrition in North America. Breadfruit fruits can be dried and ground to produce gluten-free flour high in several vitamins and protein, making it potentially useful as a food additive, supplement or hypoallergenic alternative to wheat flour in North America.
Murch says that, overall, she wants to understand the role that plants play in human health. “Everything we eat comes from a plant or something that ate a plant,” says Murch. “The nutrients and phytochemicals we consume can greatly affect our wellbeing. Understanding the mechanisms of a plant has a huge impact on how human health will progress through the next 50 years and on how we can feed and care for the growing population in the world.”