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Breadfruit Instead of Bread: How to Bring Wealth and Health to the Global South

Every year the humanity consumes an enormous amount of wheat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around 700 million tons of wheat are produced every year, and most of it is eaten as bread and pasta* (with the rest fed to livestock). That’s 100 kg per person per year!

I was unable to find a good estimate of how much breadfruit is grown globally, but another FAO study guesstimated the quantity as 1-2 million tons at most.

In my previous blog I related how I discovered that breadfruit is at least as tasty as wheat. At the same time, it lacks all the harmful chemical compounds (lectins etc.) that make wheat a source of much misery and ill-health today. Why we eat bread instead of breadfruit is a very interesting question, for which I hope to have an answer one day (and it’s not obvious, if you think about it). Another question is why we persist in eating wheaten bread, and how long it will take us to switch to healthier foods (well I personally have not eaten any wheat in more than a year).

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But another, and even more important question is why Pacific Islanders, as well as folks inhabiting many other tropical islands, eat bread. Many tropical countries import the majority of their food – wheat, corn, rice, soybeans – from the US and other temperate countries. This is absolutely crazy.

Now ancestral Polynesians were much smarter. When they got to New Guinea c.1500 BC they brought with them rice cultivation.

Polynesian_Migration.svg

Source: Wikimedia

But when they saw that bread grew on trees, they must have said, oh my God! Why devote innumerable hours of backbreaking labor to grow grass seeds, when you can simply pick bread from trees? So they abandoned rice cultivation, and switched to eating breadfruit. Together with such root crops as sweet potato and taro, which are also healthy sources of carbohydrates and many other nutrients. Actually, rice is not even the worst cereal, as I will discuss below. Nevertheless, this switch worked for them – when first Europeans arrived at Pacific islands, they could only marvel at the great health, tall stature, and natural beauty of Polynesians.

Tragically, that all is in the past. A year ago the premier medical journal Lancet published the latest data on the prevalence of obesity among different countries in the world. Although we tend to think of Americans as the fattest nation on Earth, that is actually not the case. The fattest nations today cluster in the Pacific region:

lancet

In Samoa and Tonga the proportion of adult women who are obese (BMI > 30) is around 70 percent. In American Samoa, where the local population switched from traditional Polynesian diet to American one virtually overnight, 80 percent of women are obese.

This empirical observation is actually one of the most striking examples of gene-culture coevolution. Polynesians, who did not experience many generations of selection for ability to detoxify gluten, gliadin, and other ‘secondary compounds’ that grasses load their seeds with, were really clobbered when they become exposed to such evolutionary novel foods. Of course, cereals (and legumes and dairy) are only part of the story. Novel industrial foods clearly also play a role (they are probably a big part of the explanation for the current obesity epidemic in the United States, as well as in many Middle-Eastern countries, such as Egypt).

Furthermore, it looks like not all grass seeds are equally bad. Take a note of the least obese countries in the graph above. OK, Ethiopia is at the bottom of the list because they’ve had a multi-year famine. But prosperous rice-eating countries, like Japan and Hong Kong, also have a very low prevalence of obesity. Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminets consider rice a “safe carbohydrate,” and these data suggest that they may be right. Additional support for the idea comes from the observation of very different health outcomes between wheat-eating and rice-eating regions within China (populations eating rice have much lower prevalence of heart disease and diabetes).

So we have this ironic situation, if ironic is the right word (tragic may be a better one), when poor tropical countries import wheat-based products, at great expense, from the rich North. And suffer a variety of health-related problems because of it.

An obvious solution for improving health, and wealth of people living in the Global South is for them to start growing, and consuming locally grown foods, including breadfruit. In fact, there are several current initiatives that aim to do just that. As an example, Diane Ragone, Director of the Breadfruit Institute at National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, argues that breadfruit cultivation can be the solution to hunger in the Tropics.

But it can also be a solution to ill-health, at least in the Pacific tropics, where native populations have not evolved the ability to detoxify harmful compounds within grass seeds.

Furthermore, why think small? Can we imagine the situation where all wheat-, corn-, and soybean-producing agricultural conglomerates in the Global North have gone out of business, and instead everybody is buying breadfruit flour and other healthful tropical products from the (formerly poor, and now rich) Global South? Sounds like science-fiction?

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*As well as pastry, cake, and as food additives into many processed foods. For example, most soy sauce is made with wheat as an additive

8 Comments

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8 Comments

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Thank you, JayMan for this link. Interesting analysis, but you are wrong about Samoans – they are way up there as far as BMI is concerned. What was the reason for omitting Polynesian countries from your maps and graphs?

      • JayMan says:

        Thank you! 🙂

        Hmmm, looks like many of the Pacific Island nations didn’t make the list only because they weren’t on the Visual.ly list that I based the post on. I wasn’t that aggressive in filling in all the missing nations since there were only a handful. My own shortcutting! 🙂

        About the Samoans, I did say that they were pretty heavy on average. I only noted that this didn’t seem to translate into cardiovascular mortality for them, at least not at a rate that would be commensurate with their much higher average BMI (i.e., they appear healthier than Anglos given their degree of fatness, which is very frequent for many groups around the world).

        • O.Voron says:

          Samoans are fat and jolly 🙂 Anglos are fat and stressed out:(
          Cardiovascular and other health problems are not just about being overweight.

  1. T. Greer says:

    When I lived in Hawaii I had the chance to visit a “traditional” farm on Oahu’s North Shore. The farmers there informed me that the staple of pre-Cook Hawaii was taro, and that the Hawaiian economy of this time was built around taro production and traditional aquaculture.

    There is a bit of debate among historians as to the demographics of Ancient Hawaii, some suggesting that total population was 250,000; others putting the total at 800,000+. If the latter group is correct then the traditional agricultural system was capable of supporting a population comparable to the one living on the island today!

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Actually, there were two main root crops: taro, grown in irrigated pondfields, and sweet potato, grown in rainfed fields. So, depending on the local rainfall, one or the other crop was likely to be grown. Breadfruit was the third carbohydrate staple. And the productivity was really high.

  2. Martin Hewson says:

    I like the sound of that science fiction scenario. Hoping for the day when breadfruit is available here close to the tundra.

    Logically, though, the other science fiction option is to re-engineer the human body to make it better adapted to grains. Since rats and mice seem to thrive on grass seeds, maybe a transfer of genes is in order …? (end of irony)

  3. O.Voron says:

    “Can we imagine the situation where all wheat-, corn-, and soybean-producing agricultural conglomerates in the Global North have gone out of business…”

    It does sound like science fiction. They will never let it happen no matter what.

    Mice genes transfer to humans , as Martin Hewson suggested, looks more plausible than this.:)