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NMI, Guam lawmakers discuss benefits of breadfruit

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CNMI Rep. Ivan Blanco joined Guam Sen. Kelly Marsh-Taitano on Friday participated in a virtual discussion on the benefits of breadfruit, a plant that has existed in the Pacific isles for generations.

Blanco shared about the lemmai grove in the CNMI that began 2013 under Gov. Eloy S. Inos through the University of Hawaii Pacific Business Center Program, or PBCP, Pacific Regional Breadfruit Initiative.

PBCP Director Falautusi Avegalio and his team led this project to promote and expand breadfruit use in the Pacific, including in the CNMI.

This initiative includes a world class team of experts who envision the CNMI as a major processing, refinement, and export hub to the Asian market for sustainable and gluten-free food products, such as flour made from breadfruit.

The team includes experts in drying, milling, propagation, growing, care of, and even marketing breadfruit both at the local and regional levels,  Blanco said.

A grove in Kagman produces its first breadfruit. Photo by Bill Villagomez

“There are a lot of people who were involved in this project. These are topnotch folks,” he added.

He also credited the contribution of local entities such as the Department of Lands and Natural Resources and Northern Marianas College-Cooperative Research, Extension, and Education Services.

Funding for this project was made possible through the combined efforts of the governor’s Office of Grants Management and State Clearinghouse and the U.S. Department of the Interior-Office of Insular Affairs.

The breadfruit grove in the CNMI now has over 100 breadfruit trees, Blanco said, and is projected to increase to over 200.

An agroforestry expert recommended that the CNMI test this one species of breadfruit trees before expanding.

Now, the CNMI is seeking additional funding from the OIA for the milling portion of the research, specifically how to best dry and mill the breadfruit, Blanco said.

This project was brought to the CNMI for three main arching reasons: health benefits, food security, and economic stimulation.

He noted the Breadfruit Institute at Kahanu Garden on Maui, Hawaii, which has been managing the world’s largest collection of breadfruit trees for several years now.

He said some scientists at the University of Hawaii found that a particular breadfruit, ‘ma’afala’ of Samoa, is probably the best breadfruit because it holds a very high fiber content that combats noncommunicable diseases, or NCDs, such as hypertension and diabetes.

The World Health Organization reported that NCDs are the leading causes of death and disability in the Western Pacific region, responsible for 80% of all deaths in a region that is home to more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Breadfruit can also provide food security, which, Blanco said, is an issue that continues to be tremendously discussed among community members.

The idea of this breadfruit initiative, he said, was to have at least one family or one household to have a breadfruit tree.

This can be done by air-layering or by cutting the plant by the roots and sharing them with other households to grow.

He noted that some scientists have worked on breadfruit that is grown in laboratories, making them more versatile for times of typhoons, droughts, and heavy rains.

These were brought in from Florida and distributed to Saipan, the Marshall Islands, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Guam.

They were grown for a few months before being planted, and then were unfortunately struck by Super Typhoon Yutu.

Fortunately, the breadfruit leaves just flew away and did not topple, and thus, the plants were able to regrow quickly.

Blanco said he has seen breadfruit trees grow to about 12 or 13 feet before being pruned, and he has also seen smaller and sturdier breadfruit trees.

Another motivator for the CNMI to participate in this breadfruit initiative was the possibility of tapping into a potential billion-dollar industry of breadfruit products, including gluten-free breadfruit flour, gloves made out of breadfruit sap, insect repellent, food wrap, fishing kites, and antibiotic wrap for first and second-degree burns.

He said  breadfruit sap alone is projected to generate up to roughly $1,000 per gallon in revenue.

Blanco said the CNMI hopes to work with its Pacific neighbors as a consortium in this industry because, he added, the Commonwealth cannot fulfill the global market demand on its own.

He also suggested communicating with the United Nations to consider breadfruit as a way of tackling the global food crisis, saying that it is a superfood that has many health benefits.

In an interview on Friday prior to the virtual discussion, Blanco said one of the breadfruit trees at the orchard in Kagman just produced its very first fruit.

“This is exciting after having survived Super Typhoon Yutu,” he said.

“As we await more trees to bear fruit, it’s time to ramp up the research on drying and milling process into gluten-free flour so that we can test the global market on this untapped commodity.”

Blanco said there are so many experts and individuals who were part of this breadfruit initiative founded by the late Governor Inos and continuing under Gov. Ralph DLG Torres.

“This strong partnership has led to where we are today. I am truly excited to realize the economic potential of this program,” Blanco said.

He noted that there have been talks with Saipan Mayor David Apatang of potentially having a breadfruit festival once the breadfruit grove in Kagman is ready to be harvested.

The lawmaker encourages each home to grow a breadfruit tree for food security and for its many health benefits.

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