John Arana, Belize’s Breadfruit Czar

John Arana, a Belizean farmer, has been distributing breadfruit saplings across the country imported with the aid of Trees That Feed. Since starting in 2021, Arana has distributed over 1200 saplings across the country, a move he's made as part of an effort to strengthen the country's food security in the wake of the climate crisis.

Large and oblong with light to dark green skin and segmented into many sections, the breadfruit can look absurd next to other fruits that more readily fit into a person’s palm. It’s even more confusing taste-wise, starting with an artichoke-like flavor when unripe and gaining a sweetness similar to bread as it matures. Yet, this odd fruit has become the center of a years-long project to contribute to Belize’s long-term food security, and John Arana is the one-man food corps. overseeing its proliferation across the country.

 

Arana works in construction and project management. He also co-manages his family’s farm with his brother, which was started by his father in 1972. It was during his time living in Cuba from 1991 to 1993 that Arana first became aware of how precarious the availability of food could become as the international blockade limited the supply of food entering Cuba. 

 

“Seeing their struggle to get food stayed with me since then,” Arana said.

 

breadfruit
John Arana receiving breadfruit (Photo credit: John Arana)

 

 

That realization led Arana to focus on growing several types of plants that would provide all the essential food and products to take care of himself, his family, and his community. He grows cassava as a starch, mango as a sugary treat, coconut for water and its meat, and breadfruit as a highly nutritious, climate-resilient fruit.

 

Originally from New Guinea and the Indo-Malay region, the breadfruit was taken across the world by sea voyagers, eventually arriving in the Caribbean in the late 18th century. Considered a superfood by some, one report published in the Journal of Global Health Reports states that 100 grams of breadfruit provide 25% of the recommended daily allowance for fiber, and 5-10% for protein, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, thiamine, niacin, and other nutrients.

 

Breadfruit also gained attention as a crop that can potentially further food security in places where the climate crisis has already jeopardized the water supply. The plant can survive periods of drought that would kill other plants while still producing over 100 fruits annually. This is largely thanks to its roots’ ability to absorb moisture far into the land’s groundwater.

 

Believing that breadfruit could be a pivotal part of strengthening Belize’s food security, Arana started searching for a means to quickly expand the amount of bearing trees available in the country.

 

While breadfruit trees have been in Belize for decades, their growth has been limited to a handful of orchards due to the large amount of land each requires. 

 

After some research, Arana encountered Trees That Feed Foundation’s (TTFF’s) in 2018, a non-profit organization co-founded by Mike and Mary Mclaughlin following their retirement, as a way to address their concerns about climate change’s impact on food security in the global south. 

 

breadfruit
(Photo credit: John Arana)

 

TTFF’s mission is to “plant fruit trees to feed people, create jobs, educate, and benefit the environment.”

 

The mission is realized by raising funds to buy breadfruit saplings and other trees from farmers or saplings cultivated by Diane Ragone, horticulturist and managing director at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in the United States. 

 

After making contact with TTFF, Arana waited another few years while TTFF raised funds to send the first batch of saplings to Belize on February 13, 2021. TTFF covered the cost of the saplings and the shipment, while Arana found farmers in-country to purchase the saplings for $25 BZD each.

 

“I just about break even after all the driving and other expenses,” Arana replied when asked if he earns anything from this endeavor. 

 

Arana has since received and distributed another two batches of breadfruit saplings in 2022 and 2023 and moderates a WhatsApp group of over 80 people growing this crop in Belize. Arana noticed an uptick in people’s interest in gardening and farming as the COVID-19 pandemic strained global shipping, pushing more people to recognize that a more unstable food future was not only possible but likely.

 

Jorge Aldana is one of the farmers who learned from a Facebook post about Arana’s project in 2021. He had previously attempted to grow a local variety but was unsuccessful. He thought “This is an opportunity” when he saw Arana’s post and bought his first amount, which did not survive a cold front. Unfazed, he bought another 20 the following year and has since seen greater success with his second batch. Lucia Ellis, a longtime friend of Arana, is a wellness advocate who has been a champion for breadfruit and has purchased Arana’s saplings. Ellis states that for her, “food security also has to do with cultural survival. Going back to food we used to consume. I grew up eating breadfruit all my life. Always had breadfruit in the house. [My] children didn’t know about it.”

 

When asked what’s so far limiting breadfruit’s penetration into the marketplace, Arana and his purchasers all agreed that the lack of familiarity with the fruit among the majority of Belizeans is the major obstacle. This is despite the fact that breadfruit is a highly versatile food that lends itself well to anything one can do with a potato: blend it into a smoothie, or throw it straight onto a flame and roast it. More recently, Chef Tim August of Stone Kraab Restaurant has been experimenting with breadfruit, making conch fritters in a breadfruit batter and tacos made with a breadfruit shell. These types of interventions, according to Arana, will help breadfruit become a central part of Belizeans’ menus.

 

breadfruit
Breadfruit saplings (Photo credit: John Arana)

Food security and climate justice are two issues that are becoming increasingly intertwined. The changing climate has had a significant impact on food production, distribution, and access. As a result, many communities around the world are facing food insecurity, which has the potential to exacerbate existing social inequalities and injustices. 

 

Breadfruit has the potential to play a key role in addressing both food security and climate justice. By promoting the cultivation and consumption of breadfruit, we can not only address food security and climate justice but also support cultural preservation and community empowerment. By prioritizing the cultivation and utilization of breadfruit, we can support vulnerable communities, preserve cultural traditions, and promote a more just and sustainable future for all.

 

In all, Arana has so far distributed more than 1200 saplings, with no plans to stop. Mary Mclaughlin said that “every country [TTFF] works as if we have a John Arana. Someone who thinks of country first.” Thanks to Arana, Belize is well on its way to expanding the breadfruit’s abundance. And while only some will be lucky enough to grow them for now, Belizeans can all do their part by purchasing, cooking, and eating these otherworldly delights.

 

Belize will be a step closer to food security in the face of continued climate change effects. 

 


 

This story was originally published by The Reporter, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.

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André Habet

André Habet

André is a writer, teacher, and journalist based in his home country Belize. He writes film, poetry, and comics criticism and serves as assistant editor at Bent Pin Press. He’s been an avid cyclist since his first car died on him in college.

André is completing his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Syracuse University with a dissertation ruminating on the rhetorics of Belize’s various climate imaginaries, an examination of how the possible futures we imagine informs and shapes policy decisions today

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