Breadfruit for all

LIHUE — Dr. Diane Ragone, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Breadfruit Institute, may know as much about breadfruit, or ulu, as anyone.

And her mission is to use the nutritious, multipurpose trees to develop sustainable agriculture, crop diversity and food security.

“I think most people don’t know the incredible diversity of breadfruit as a crop, and what a nutritious and versatile food it is,” she said.

Ragone is an authority on the conservation and use of breadfruit, and has been conducting studies on the crop for 30 years. Her fieldwork has helped establish the world’s largest and most extensive collection of ulu — 120 varieties from 34 islands in the Pacific — at NTBG’s Kahanu Garden on Maui.

Next month, the passionate leader will be honored for her work to alleviate hunger and provide long-term food security.

Ragone was selected as one of eight 2013 “Stars of Oceania,” a set of awards presented every three or four years by the Pacific Business Center of the University of Hawaii.

This year’s program recognizes “women of and from Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and the state of Hawaii who reaffirm the capacity of women to serve, lead and inspire regionally, nationally and globally through aloha, courage, perseverance, precedence and faith,” according to an NTBG release.

Ragone, the only honoree from Kauai, has been selected in the category of Humanitarian Leadership and will be honored during the third “Stars of Oceania” recognition dinner Dec. 3 in Honolulu.

“Her work on breadfruit to feed the hungry of the world has impacted disaster stricken areas in the Caribbean and Africa where mass planting of trees from (Hawaii) have fed hundreds of thousands over the decade,” wrote UH in a release.

In addition to working as director of the institute, Ragone is a representative to the Alliance to End Hunger. Her work with breadfruit dates back to the 1980s, when she chose it for her Ph.D. research project at UH.

She said Wednesday that she was surprised, humbled and honored to be recognized among such an “impressive group of women.”

“It’s a big deal for the institute and NTBG because it really acknowledges all the work the institute has done,” she said.

Eight women — from Fiji to Myanmar, Montana to Virginia — will be honored.

“Primarily, we wanted to recognize and celebrate the contributions of Pacific Islanders and residents not born and raised as such, but whose heart and service is testimony to their love for the islands they call home,” UH Pacific Business Center Program Director Dr. Tusi Avegalio said in a statement.

The Breadfruit Institute was founded in 2003 with the mission of promoting the conservation and use of ulu for food and reforestation.

The “Stars of Oceania” honor comes in the midst of the institute’s 10-year anniversary and on the heels of a Nov. 15 announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the compounds in the male flowers of the fruit are significantly more effective at repelling mosquitos than DEET, according to a release.

Those findings are the result of collaborative research conducted using NTBG’s breadfruit collection and published in a March 2012 paper co-authored by Ragone.

NTBG’s Director of Science David Lorence has known and worked with Ragone since the mid-1980s, and said she brings a “great passion” to the garden.

Leading by example, Ragone has earned the respect of many staff and coworkers at NTBG.

“A hard worker, devoted and really enjoys what she’s doing. People sense that,” Lorence said. “Plus she’s taken the initiative on a lot of different projects.”

Additionally, Ragone has been instrumental in opening doors throughout the Pacific, according to Lorence.

In partnership with Cultivaris, LLC, three Samoan breadfruit varieties are now being bred through in-vitro propagation and distributed globally, according to the release.

“She’s very personable, and it’s just a pleasure to work with her,” Lorence said. “Through her work with breadfruit she really hopes to help alleviate world hunger … to make plants available to cultures around the world to become more self sufficient.”

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