GROW Perspective: We Need To Think Bigger

Garry Grueber (far right) planted breadfruit plants in Ghana.
Garry Grueber (far right) planting breadfruit plants in Ghana.

In a packed room at Cultivate’14, Garry Grueber, a partner at Cultivaris and Global Breadfruit, commenced to blow the minds of everyone in his audience when he discussed what the future of horticulture may look like in 30 years.

Those attending may have thought they were going to get a glimpse of new varieties or new genera that would be popular among consumers of the future. What they got instead was an awakening to the problems our industry — and all of agriculture — faces in the coming years. While plants still play an important role, their function may be completely different than that of the ornamental crops we grow today.

Grueber was kind enough to answer some further questions here, on behalf of himself and his colleages at Cultivaris and Global Breadfruit, in light of the recent Ebola outbreak and lessons they’ve learned about food insecurity. With this global perspective, he says the horticulture industry must broaden its horizons and evolve in order to survive.

GG: Tell us about how your company, Global Breadfruit, is involved in providing worldwide food security.

Grueber: My business partner Josh Schneider and our colleague Blair Lampert are much more active in this project than I am, but I will respond on their behalf.

Global Breadfruit was formed as a division of Cultivaris North America LLC in 2009. In essence, what we are doing with Global Breadfruit is applying the techniques, the expertise and the production facilities of the floriculture industry to mass-produce an alternative food crop. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) has been a traditional crop in Polynesia and the South Pacific for thousands of years. Over this time period, the islanders selected superior forms of this crop — seedless varieties, clones with superior taste or better adaptation to brackish water or shallow coral soils. These local forms were all collected by Dr. Diane Ragone of the National Tropical Botanic Garden, and are maintained as a living collection in Maui.

Josh Schneider (second from left) delivered the first breadfruit plants to Liberia earlier this year.
Josh Schneider (second from left) delivered the first breadfruit plants to Liberia earlier this year.

Josh Schneider (second from left) delivered the first breadfruit plants to Liberia earlier this year.

The virtues of breadfruit as a sustainable, high-yield source of high-quality, gluten-free starch have been known to the Western world since the time of Captain Bligh and the Mutiny on the Bounty — but until recently, there has not been an effective method of mass propagation in place for this crop. A recent breakthrough in initiating and maintaining this crop in tissue culture has allowed for an economically viable method of propagating selected varieties of this high-yield crop in tissue culture, thus making mass production and worldwide distribution possible — and economically viable — for the very first time.

Cultivaris and Global Breadfruit have the exclusive license for the tissue-culture technology to mass-propagate this valuable crop, in full compliance with the Convention on Biodiversity. For every tree sold, a royalty goes to the country of origin from which the respective breadfruit variety was sourced.

Of the world’s current population of 7.2 billion, almost 1 billion people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. About 90 percent of those suffering from hunger live in areas suitable for the cultivation of breadfruit.

Over the past five years, Global Breadfruit has shipped around 50,000 ex-vitro breadfruit trees to more than 30 tropical countries, including Myanmar and Pakistan. Since each and every one of these trees has the yield potential to feed a family of four for the next 50 to 70 years (at least), the trees that we have already shipped will contribute to the sustenance of more than 200,000 people in the tropics over the next generations. We have at our disposal a tool to seriously alleviate world hunger in the decades to come.

GG: How has the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the international panic it induced, affected the global food issue? How has your company been impacted by this and what have you learned?

Grueber: Earlier this year, in face of the beginning Ebola outbreak, our partner Josh Schneider visited Liberia and delivered the very first shipment of our high-yield breadfruit varieties to this country. Liberia is one of the poorest countries on Earth, so a long-term, sustainable source of sustenance for the local population is sorely needed.

In the interim, the Ebola tragedy has unfolded and has ravaged this country to an extent that is very difficult for us to fathom. The disease itself is horrific enough — but curfews and resulting disruptions in the harvesting and distribution of basic foodstuffs have created widespread food shortages, and inevitably starvation. Widespread plantings of breadfruit would serve as a long-term, local and readily available source of food for the local population — even in the face of a crisis like Ebola.

From afar, it is fairly easy to distance oneself from the Ebola tragedy and the human havoc that it is wreaking. Through our involvement with the breadfruit project, we of course are in daily contact with people in the affected countries. The personal accounts of the far-reaching implications of the outbreak, and the very real personal losses and hardships caused by the disease, are quite heartbreaking — but also a strong motivation to further push forward with our efforts for widespread distribution of this valuable crop throughout the tropics.

GG: How will your experiences with Global Breadfruit affect the work Cultivaris is doing in the floriculture industry?

Grueber: Our core business is, and remains, product development with ornamental crops, and the success of the breadfruit project will not change this. Our portfolio and global licensee network for floriculture crops is growing in leaps and bounds, and we see an immense potential in further innovation and concepting in this area.

That being said, the development and effective implementation of alternative food crops is a lucrative business model in its own right — and, in regard to alleviating world hunger, immensely gratifying. There is a real difference between introducing (yet another) new pink-flowered petunia to the market, and with knowing that the plants one produces and supplies will feed many hungry mouths for decades to come.

GG: What should our industry be doing to broaden our horizons and think bigger, in the light of a growing population, reduced arable land and extreme climate conditions like drought? What are the consequences if we don’t?

Grueber: The world’s population is currently growing at a rate of 750 million per year. Within the next 40 years, the world’s population is expected to reach between 9 and 10 billion. Population growth, coupled with the increasing meat consumption in former and current developing nations, means that we will have to produce more food over the next 40 years than mankind has produced over the past 8,000 years! The amount of arable land available to us is limited, and if we are not to destroy the very last natural habitats on this Earth, we urgently need to develop alternative food crops and improved production methods.

We as an industry have the expertise to provide solutions to the immense problems facing mankind in the decades to come. If we do not, the consequences will be dire. Food shortages will not only result in widespread starvation and malnutrition, but in political instability, upheavals and war.

GG: What achievements are important for our industry in the coming year?

Grueber: I believe that the biggest challenge we face as an industry is to halt the self-inflicted devaluation of the crops we produce. The products we create and produce are intrinsically valuable and desirable — and yet, as an industry, we truly excel at systematically destroying the value of our products through the entire distribution chain. This must stop, and soon — otherwise our industry has no chance of long-term survival. We need new, fresh ideas and concepts — not just new varieties, but entirely new models for producing and selling ornamental crops to tomorrow’s consumers.

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