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Fijian breadfruit: pest-free and picker-friendly

Breadfruit growing on farmland near Nadi, Fiji
Breadfruit growing on farmland near Nadi, Fiji

While initially seen by many Fijians as a white elephant, the establishment of a quarantine treatment plant beside the Nadi international airport has become the hub for Fiji's exports of fresh produce. Built in 1994 with funding from USAID, the warehouse houses a 'giant oven' to heat fresh fruit and vegetables to a precise temperature, sufficient to kill pests and pest eggs, but not so high as to damage, let alone cook, the treated produce. Exports of eggplant began in 1996, followed by papaya and mangoes. In 2001, exports of breadfruit were first shipped to New Zealand reaching 20 tonnes in 2005, although the potential demand could be much greater.

The High Temperature Forced Air (HFTA) treatment machine was originally developed and used in Hawaii with further success achieved with its use in the Cook Islands. Despite support from USAID for establishing the machine in Fiji, the country's financial institutions were unwilling to support the running costs. Unperturbed the treatment plant sought funding elsewhere and backing was provided by the New Zealand government. By September 1996 Sant Kumar, the first and only manager of the treatment plant had re-painted the warehouse from cream to red - to 'change the colour of the elephant' - and witnessed the treatment of the first batch of produce, destined for Auckland.

The treatment plant is owned and operated by a co-operative, Nature's Way, which now has over 100 members, both growers and exporters. In 2005, around 800 tonnes of fresh produce were treated for export to New Zealand and Australia. At present, Australia only imports papaya from Fiji - although demand for the fruit is currently high, following storm damage to the home-grown crop earlier this year. New Zealand imports papaya, eggplant, mango and, most recently, breadfruit. The fruit - eaten in Samoa as a carbohydrate staple - has strong cultural value, particularly on Sundays, when it is roasted in the umu pit oven, to be shared by families and friends.

Breadfruit is also greatly valued by Samoan communities in Auckland and analysis of consumer trends in Samoa and Auckland suggests that the potential market could be as high as 500-1,500 tonnes per year. Nevertheless, meeting that demand will require a radical change in production methods, albeit one that both Nature's Way and the Fijian government are now keen to adopt.

Tricky to pick

The major priority is the development of orchards. Currently, breadfruit are harvested from scattered trees growing on farmland or on Fiji's steep, forested hills. The trees grow to over 20 metres, and the upper branches are often fragile and liable to snap. The standard harvesting practice is to climb high into the tree to pull off fruit with a hooked stick, but this is far from ideal for either fruit or pickers. Breadfruit are delicate, easily bruised, bleed sap profusely if scratched and quickly burn if left in the sun. They also need to be harvested when they are mature enough for cooking, but before any ripening (which renders them inedible) has begun. Achieving that while stretching at the top of a tree is a tall order. As a result, many harvested fruit are currently unsuitable for export.

Sant Kumar, manager of Natures Way coop treatment plant, with breadfruit export quality guidelines poster
Sant Kumar, manager of Natures Way coop treatment plant, with breadfruit export quality guidelines poster

A manual to advise growers on safer harvesting and handling methods was recently produced by Nature's Way. But bringing the fruit closer to the ground is the best approach for improved crop management and harvest handling. Orchards of improved breadfruit varieties in the eastern Caribbean export some 1,000 tonnes each year to West Indian communities in the UK and Holland. In Fiji, the Ministry of Agriculture, Sugar and Land Resettlement is supporting the establishment of orchards and distribution of new breadfruit planting material. Saplings from leading export varieties are propagated using a variety of techniques to produce fruit at head height and many existing large trees have been shortened to promote lower growth. Full fruiting potential from new trees takes three to four years, so farmers are encouraged to intercrop with pineapples, papaya or banana to achieve quicker returns.

More crops, more markets

A third HTFA machine is be installed at the treatment plant funded by UNDP as part of an Alternative Livelihoods project, prompted by the decline in Fiji's sugar cane industry. But according to Kumar, expanding exports will depend on strengthening production systems, and the links between growers and exporters. Establishing new markets for a wider range of crops is also a major goal, in order to balance seasonal fluctuations in produce supply and maximise the potential of the treatment plant.

Other possible export crops include jack fruit, bitter and bottle gourd, and loofah (luffa), with potential markets on the west coast of America and in Japan, as well as Australia and New Zealand. However, reaching agreement on export requirements and quarantine procedures takes time; achieving authorisation for papaya exports to Australia took eight years, and negotiations for breadfruit are ongoing. But, with Fiji's new breadfruit orchards set to reach full production in four years' time, there seems a good chance that the increased supply and rising demand could coincide rather well.

Date published: September 2006

 

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Can I buy breadfruit in Christchurch NZ (posted by: Sue hooton)

 

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