‘Ulu: the New Superfood

Feature Story

by Kau’i Salzman

With the understanding that Hawaii would be in serious and immediate crisis if our food and goods imports were to suddenly be cut off, due to some natural disaster or other, a movement of collective minds are transforming solutions into action in their efforts to create a more food-secure, and sustainable local economy. The issue has been addressed at the most recent IUCN World Conservation Congress, held on O’ahu this past September, where Governor Ige himself stated that Hawaii will commit to doubling its local food production by 2030; a challenging goal indeed. However, local organizations are hard at work to promote a more resilient Hawaii.

One such solution, or I should say one such fruit, is the ‘Ulu, or breadfruit. There are current projects in place that are encouraging this ancient crop to be revitalized in every which way- culturally, agriculturally, educationally, and economically.   The ‘ulu tree was once a key staple to the seafaring peoples of the Pacific, and may possibly be one solution to modern Hawaii’s food insecurity problem, in addition to other issues, including nutrition and diet-related diseases, and job opportunities for locals. Some key facts about the ‘ulu tree[1]:

  • It is a low-maintenance and very high-yielding crop, producing a steady number of fruit throughout the year- one tree can bear 150-300 fruits per year
  • Roots can withstand rising tides, in the case of flooding, making it more resilient than yams, taro, and banana crops
  • It’s wood is resistant to marine worms and termites- once used to build ancient polynesian outrigger canoes
  • ‘ulu flower can be used as an insect repellent, in particular mosquitoes
  • ‘ulu sap or milk is an organic latex that is said to be a stronger insecticide than some current synthetic insecticides- once used for boat caulking
  • The ‘ulu fruit is a highly nutritious gluten-free starch- high in vitamin A, zero cholesterol- that can be prepared in many different ways, substituting potato in many recipes, rice or taro, as a staple starch in the everyday diet

Led by Co-Directors, Craig Elevitch and Andrea Dean, is the Ho’oulu Ka ‘Ulu Project, located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Members include 25 stakeholders from 16 different organizations, and were initially funded by the Ulupono Initiative, a local investment firm that supports sustainability projects. This project takes a multi-pronged approach in promoting ‘ulu revitalization by including areas of: environmental research, culture and history of ‘ulu, planting and agroforestation to restore the Kulu’ulu zone, consumer demand, youth engagement, and food security. Ho’oulu Ka ‘Ulu hosts festivals, leads workshops to educate the public and increase awareness of the many benefits of ‘ulu. They also research different ‘ulu tree varieties, to figure out which varieties grow best and in what areas, keep a current inventory of existing ‘ulu trees on the island, and determine how feasible distribution of the fruit may be. Studying mixed agro forestry systems is also in place as this was a practice of ancient Hawaiians, to ensure regenerative, healthy soil[2].

Another ‘ulu initiative is led by University of Hawaii’s Pacific Business Center Program Director, Dr. Failautusi Avegalio, better known as “Dr. Tusi” around the world. Dr. Tusi’s project, Pacific Regional Breadfruit Initiative, is focused on the commercialization of ‘ulu in the entire pacific oceania, where ‘ulu can be grown, dried & processed to flour, and sold to the U.S. and Asian markets as gluten-free flour. Gluten-free flour is a multi-billion dollar market and rising. However, one state or region will not have the means to supply the current demand; hence PRBI’s push for a regional industry, at least to get the initiative rolling:

“As each jurisdiction develops in this systems approach, expertise will facilitate local capacity to move it towards greater self-sufficiency to engage markets at its discretion. For now, all regions and governments need to work together collaboratively to move the regional breadfruit initiative forward.” [3]

Dr. Tusi envisions Hawaii to be the major manufacturing and exportation hub for the US market, and the Marianas Islands to be the same for Asian markets. The Commonwealth for Northern Marianas Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and American and West Samoa are all invested in testing out this initiative, with Samoa taking the lead on the production of ‘ulu flour and a recent assessment showed good progress[4].

The initial idea to commercialize breadfruit was not at first favorable, considering the traditional plant-to-harvest time is 7 years. However, research and development by Dr. Susan Murch and Dr. Diane Ragone at the National Tropical Botanical Garden Breadfruit Institute, enabled propagation of ‘ulu plantlets that can be distributed worldwide and cut the plant-to-harvest time down to 2.5- 3 years. This is a huge accomplishment, and makes the potential for ‘ulu commercialization more promising. PRBI won an award for Research and Development by the University Economic Development Association in 2014, and attributes much of their work to Dr. Murch and Dr. Ragone’s research and support.[5]

Additional research is also in progress, such as, ‘ulu’s nutrient content, plant varieties, and other sub-tropical/tropical geographical locations that could also benefit economically. Breadfruit advocates are very enthusiastic about the potential to alleviate hunger in tropical areas around the world, that can grow ‘ulu, and create a sustainable, food-secure economy. More research will indicate the potential for Hawaii to bring ‘ulu back into the mainstream diet as well as the larger market.

[1]https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/migrated/oia/igia/upload/38-University-of-Hawaii-Pacific-Business-Center-Program-DOI_OIA-Briefing-Report-Breadfruit-2-19-14.pdf

[2] http://www.hawaiihomegrown.net/breadfruit

[3]https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/migrated/oia/igia/upload/38-University-of-Hawaii-Pacific-Business-Center-Program-DOI_OIA-Briefing-Report-Breadfruit-2-19-14.pdf

[4]http://www.pireport.org/articles/2016/11/20/american-samoa-breadfruit-flour-prototype-mill-showing-good-progress

[5]http://www.hawaii.edu/news/2014/10/28/uh-pacific-business-centers-breadfruit-project-wins-national-economic-development-award/