When it comes to adapting to/preparing for global warming, resilience is key. It’s absolutely worth finding ways to increase our resistance to climate disasters, but being able to recover quickly will matter much more. There’s no roadmap for how the next few decades are going to go – we’ve got good general guesses, but those don’t allow us to predict what’s going to happen where. We can prepare for some things – ensure access to air conditioning and reliable potable water during heatwaves, for one example – but the ability to take an unexpected hit without collapsing is key.
Resilience, in my view, is best achieved through diversity. Diversity of strengths, diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of species – I make no secret of my interest in ecology, or of my belief that we should see ourselves as part of the ecosystems around us. In ecosystems, biodiversity is key to resilience. The more species you have living in a given area, the less damage will be done by removing any one of those species. There are a lot of ways in which I think this concept applies fractally. At the level of a local community, a diversity of people makes it more likely that whatever problem arises, someone will have some idea of what to do about it. A diversity in diet – in types and sources of food – means that if one kind of crop fails, there are other kinds of food available. Zoom out to the national or global scale, and the same remains true.
That’s why it’s such a problem that so much of our population depends on so few species. Even leaving aside the disease and pest risks of monoculture farming, relying on a small number of crops means depending on a narrow range of growing conditions. At risk of stating the obvious, growing conditions are changing worldwide. I maintain that our first priority should be investing heavily in indoor food production, but in the interest of diversity and resilience, I think there’s real value in exploring other options.
While researchers predict that climate change will have an adverse effect on most staple crops, including rice, corn and soybeans, a new Northwestern University study finds that breadfruit — a starchy tree fruit native to the Pacific islands — will be relatively unaffected.
Because breadfruit is resilient to predicted climate change and particularly well-suited to growing in areas that experience high levels of food insecurity, the Northwestern team believes breadfruit could be part of the solution to the worsening global hunger crisis.
The study was published today (Aug. 17) in the journal PLOS Climate.
“Breadfruit is a neglected and underutilized species that happens to be relatively resilient in our climate change projections,” said Northwestern’s Daniel Horton, a senior author on the study. “This is good news because several other staples that we rely on are not so resilient. In really hot conditions, some of those staple crops struggle and yields decrease. As we implement strategies to adapt to climate change, breadfruit should be considered in food security adaptation strategies.”
Despite having “fruit” in its name, breadfruit is starchy and seedless, playing a culinary role more like a potato. Closely related to jackfruit, the nutrient-rich food is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. In tropical parts of the world, people have been eating breadfruit for thousands of years — whether steamed, roasted, fried or fermented. Breadfruit also can be turned into flour, in order to lengthen its shelf life and be exported.
“Breadfruit trees can live for decades and provide a large amount of fruits each year,” said Zerega, a conservation scientist with the Negaunee Institute for Plant Conservation Science and Action at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “In some cultures, there is a tradition to plant a breadfruit tree when a child is born to ensure the child will have food for the rest of their life.”
This sounds like something worth looking into, doesn’t it? As ever, this needs to come with systemic economic and political change – there’s no point to increasing consumption of breadfruit if it’s just rich countries buying it from the people who currently rely on it, and forcing those people to then buy food on the international market. Fortunately, it seems likely that the number of places capable of growing breadfruit will go up as the temperature rises, particularly compared to current staples like wheat.
To conduct the study, the researchers first determined the climate conditions required to cultivate breadfruit. Then, they looked at how these conditions are predicted to change in the future (between the years 2060 and 2080). For future climate projections, they looked at two scenarios: an unlikely scenario that reflects high greenhouse-gas emissions and a more likely scenario in which emissions stabilize.
I love the optimism of their likely/unlikely labeling. I hope history proves them right about that.
In both scenarios, areas suitable for breadfruit cultivation remained mostly unaffected. In the tropics and subtropics, the suitable area for growing breadfruit decreased by a modest 4.4 to 4.5%. The researchers also found suitable territory where growing breadfruit trees could expand — particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where breadfruit trees are not traditionally grown but could provide an important and stable source of food.
“Despite the fact that climate will drastically change in the tropics, climate is not projected to move outside the window where breadfruit is comfortable,” Yang said. “From a climate perspective, we can already grow breadfruit in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a huge swath of Africa, where breadfruit can grow to various degrees. It just has not been broadly introduced there yet. And, luckily enough, most varieties of breadfruit are seedless and have little-to-no likelihood of becoming invasive.”
According to Zerega, once established, a breadfruit tree can withstand heat and drought much longer than other staple crops. But the benefits don’t end there. Because it’s a perennial crop, it also requires less energy input (including water and fertilizer) than crops that need to be replanted every year, and, like other trees, it sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the tree’s lifetime.
“A lot of places where breadfruit can grow have high levels of food insecurity,” Yang said. “Oftentimes, they combat food insecurity by importing staple crops like wheat or rice, and that comes with a high environmental cost and carbon footprint. With breadfruit, however, these communities can produce food more locally.”
This brings us back to the need for systemic change. There’s a long history of rich nations using their wealth and power to undermine efforts at self-sufficiency in poor nations. Forcing a country to remain dependent on imports means that they have to put all their resources into generating cash crops to sell on the international market. That benefits capitalists, but it’s terrible for the kind of resilience we need. This is yet another example where we have what looks to be a good solution to part of the climate problem, but it’s unlikely to be implemented in any useful capacity without revolutionary political change.
It’s also worth underlining that there’s very little chance of the plant becoming invasive if grown in new locations. I’ve talked before about the damage that invasive species can do, and now is not the time to be adding more burdens to already-crumbling ecosystems.
The scale of change that we need is daunting, to say the least. I don’t think humanity has ever undertaken a task of this size and complexity. The upside is that “humanity” is also big and complex, and we’ve learned how break down big problems into more manageable parts. For climate change, one of those parts is changing our food system. Some of that change will just be differences in proportion – maybe we’ll have less wheat and corn, and more rice breadfruit, for example. I find it helps to remember that there are thousands of teams like the one behind this breadfruit research. More than that, there are millions of people not just doing research, but also taking direct action, and working out how to do more.
I no longer think climate change is just the result of all of us being collectively irresponsible – that would ignore how power works, and how our system is designed. That said, we are collectively living through it. You are not alone, and even if it’s not your day, your week, your month, or even your year, there are countless others out there working.
To grow breadfruit.
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Oggie: Mathom says
I have seen breadfruit in our local grocery store. Also jackfruit. At some point, I need to actually buy some and try it. Despite my penchant for unusual foods, many of the tropical vegetables and fruits worry me a little because I have no idea what to do with it. Last year, Wife and I went to Cincinnati to go fossil hunting. No, really. We did. We stopped at what was billed as a tourist attraction but was actually the best grocery store I have ever been to. Jungle Jim’s had fruits and veggies that I had never heard of. And the fruits and veggies I did not know actually outnumbered the ones I did know. I think we will all need to expand our view of what normal food is.
Abe Drayton says
I think I’ve had both? I know I’ve had jackfruit, but that was well over a decade ago.
I think part of the key is to learn how to prepare new foods the way they’re meant to be, rather than trying to use it as a “replacement” for the foods we’re used to. I think that part of the unpopularity of tofu, for example, comes from the way people tried to sell it as a meat alternative, rather than its own food that requires its own methods of preparation.
I work for a very large organization–so large we have an on-site cafeteria that charges money for meals. About a decade ago, they hired a new chef who tried out some non-meat-based and otherwise “exotic” meals such as pork souvlaki and Doro Wat (an Ethiopian stew) that were astoundingly well-done for a cafeteria. To be clear: employees could still get their hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, onion rings, and pizza…and they could visit the pasta bar, the sandwich bar, and the salad bar (all of those charged by the ounce).
You should have heard the aggrieved screaming and carrying on from a certain segment of the employees. They were outraged at the appearance of “foreign” foods: EVEN THOUGH THEY STILL HAD THEIR FAVORITE JUNK FOODS AVAILABLE. This was before they learned the word “woke”–if they had known it, they would have been screaming it.
Abe Drayton says
I think the only thing to do with people like that is to change the world around them and ignore the whining. Once it becomes the “new normal” they’ll try to claim it for themselves the way Tucker Carlson insisted that tacos were American food, not Mexican.
I am sad to report that THAT segment of the population (white guys over 40) was loud and obnoxious and had enough clout that the interesting foods were taken away and we were left with junky, unhealthy foods–what the grumpy old white men wanted.
The quoted bit said, “… a breadfruit tree can withstand heat and drought much longer than other staple crops.”; but I saw no mention of whether it can tolerate cold. Can I plant a breadfruit tree in my back yard (middle latitudes in the U.S. Midwest where it’s common to get below freezing in the winter)?
Alan G. Humphrey says
@ billseymour #6
No, the breadfruit tree does not tolerate frost and only really thrives with minimum temperatures above 16 C (61 F) while tolerating highs of 35C (95 F) or above.
Abe Drayton says
@bill – looks like you’ll have to wait another decade or so 😛
Completely off topic: Your description of the image of the breadfruit tree was very well done, very ADA and Section 508 (Accessibility) compliant. No snark: well done!
Abe Drayton says
@Katydid – I appreciate the feedback. I try to do that for all the images I post, and I’ve recently started putting the descriptions where everyone can see them rather than in the alt text. I think that’s better, and it helps sighted folks with images that don’t load on whatever device they’re using. It also makes me feel better to have that work be less hidden 😛
Abe @8: 😎