Jackfruit: The Future of Sustainable Vegan Food?

jackfruit-shree-padre

An interview with India’s jackfruit expert, Shree Padre. On the future role of jackfruit as a sustainable vegan food and as the key to the future food security of Asia.

A New Era for Plant-based Food

Two weeks ago I visited a vegan festival in Durban, South Africa. I ate something that blew my mind. Not just because of its taste but because of what it represents and the possibilities for the future. Jackfruit or as some people are starting to name it ‘The Miracle Fruit’. 

Jackfruit ‘Fish’

There are two foods I have always felt the vegan food scene has been missing. Deep fried fish like the type you get from an English ‘chippy’ and deep-fried chicken, like from KFC. Jackfruit is the answer. Not only does it have the texture, but it also has the ability to take on any flavour. It’s truly a revolution for the plant-based diet and vegans. 

More importantly, if jackfruit is marketed correctly it could significantly help reduce the amount of chicken and fish currently being consumed. This is a big deal. Our current obsession with fish and chicken has led us to numerous environmental issues.

Overfishing has been deemed ‘a worse threat to oceans than climate change’ and we are on our way to fishless oceans by 2050. Chicken farming results in a myriad of environmental nightmares including air pollution, soil and water contamination, eutrophication of natural water sources and disease of land animals (including humans).

With my new found interest in jackfruit and it’s potential I then went on a mission. I started to scour the internet for more information about this versatile fruit. Where does it come from? Who farms it? Who sells it? Is it sustainable? Is it a viable long term alternative to chicken and fish?  

During my research, one name continued to appear time and time again, Mr Shree Padre. A farmer by profession, magazine editor and also a well-respected journalist from India. Clearly, he knew a lot about jackfruit and is one of it’s biggest advocates.

He must have the answers I’m looking for. So I contacted him. 

Shree Padre, The Jackfruit Expert 

Hello Shree, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I belong to a traditional farming family of Kerala. My special interests are rainwater harvesting, jackfruit development and pen to farmers hands. We, a farmers group, have been publishing a unique farm magazine, Adike Patrike, for the last 31 years. The writing of articles, editing, publishing and even distribution to some extent are all shouldered by practicing farmers. To promote farmer to farmer communication, we have conducted many farm journalism workshops and have promoted constructive, need-based and responsible farm journalism and inspired and trained quite a few farmers to write on farming.

Why do you advocate for jackfruit so much?

It’s a highly versatile, farmer-friendly crop that’s highly under-researched. In India, the number one country in jackfruit production, we grow a huge quantity of the wonderful ‘world hunger reliever’ crop. Though India is the mother country of Jackfruit, many of our own people, including our horticulturists, Agriculture department officers, policymakers and ministers are not aware of how important jackfruit is for the future. If used properly, it could have an immense capacity to augment the rural economy. But due to the lack of awareness about jackfruit’s importance and usage, the lion’s share of jackfruit goes unutilized. Every part of the jackfruit and in every stage of its growth is useful. The range and number of products you can make from jackfruit are endless, I am yet to come across another crop in the world that can match its versatility. Jackfruit has many medicinal and nutraceutical properties. The latest we have discovered is the low glycemic index of raw jackfruit which makes it an ideal food supplement for diabetic patients. Now raw jackfruit flour and dehydrated jackfruit carpels, targeted at diabetic patients are widely available in Kerala. There are reports that during jackfruit season, sale of medicines for diabetes gets decreased by 25% in Kerala.

“Due to the lack of awareness about jackfruit’s importance and usage, the lion’s share of jackfruit goes unutilized. Every part of the jackfruit and in every stage of its growth is useful.”

Are you aware of the growing demand for jackfruit in the West among plant-based and vegan communities?

Yes. Some of my jackfruit loving friends abroad say that the new interest in jackfruit has surpassed the vegan section and is now reflected in the mainstream food scene also. They say jackfruit products are appearing in restaurants and stores where they didn’t dream it being sold a decade ago.

Jackfruit products are popping up everywhere in the West

Vegans recognize jackfruit’s potential as a meat and fish alternative. If it were to become a staple in the West how would it affect the supply chain?

This new found popularity of jackfruit as a meat or fish alternative is just half a decade old. This trend is increasing, creating more demand for jackfruit. The problem with India is that supply chains for jackfruit are non-existent from many major jackfruit growing areas. This is because my country has started recognizing jackfruit as a crop with commercial potential only very recently — again this realization hasn’t yet reached the nooks and corners of the country, including north-eastern India where there is very good production. In other words, my country is still not ready to cash in on this new found popularity of jackfruit as a plant-based meat substitute by supplying the raw material may be in a ‘Ready To Cook’ form in the way the west requires it. This will take quite some time.

What would be the positive or negative effects an increased demand for jackfruit could have on the farmers and the people of the countries where the fruit grows?

We in Kerala and Karnataka use jackfruit not only as young (tender) jackfruit and for vegetable purposes only. We use it for dosa making, papad making, payasa, desserts and even as a table fruit. Except mainly the northeast, northern India, like the west, knows jackfruit only as a vegetable. Of course, more demand for jackfruit will, in the long run, mean more income for farmers. But in India, jackfruit is still a scattered and uncared for crop. Plantations have started appearing only now. But excessive demand only for young jackfruit would create some imbalance. If young jackfruits are harvested in a big way, getting mature raw and ripe jackfruits would be difficult, those will be scarce. This happens when the supply is done only from a smaller area. India is so big and our jackfruit production is very high. If young jackfruits are sourced from different parts of my country such as Assam, Tripura in the northeast, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and such other states, then this ‘man-made scarcity’ wouldn’t happen so fast.

Secondly, I request that you bloggers and western media tell people that ‘Jackfruit means not young (tender) jackfruit or Veg meat alone’. Its far far more than that. Let them learn to use mature raw jackfruit and ripe ones for table purpose. If not anything else, they will be far healthier! They will get relief from diabetes, high blood pressure, constipation, vitamin deficiencies and more health problems.

“I request that you bloggers and western media tell people that ‘Jackfruit means not young (tender) jackfruit or Veg meat alone’. It’s far far more than that.”

Is Jackfruit farming environmentally sustainable? How would increased demand affect the environment in which it grows?

Jackfruit is an environmentally friendly crop. It develops a very dense canopy and good biomass. It’s not a heavy water user. Instead, with its taproot travelling much deeper where other trees won’t reach, it helps in groundwater recharge. It brings down the microclimate temperature. To a certain extent it is drought resistant, thus turning to be a good candidate for dry land horticulture. Its leaves are a good feed for goats. It can be a good border crop too. If properly managed, by creating a reliable supply chain and developing GAP, India can satisfy west’s demand for jackfruit for a considerable point of time without having much negative fall out. For this to happen, Central and State governments should take this action plan as a priority. Further, we can grow jackfruit easily even in some of our rainfed areas and augment production, if such necessity occurs in the near future.

“If properly managed, by creating a reliable supply chain and developing GAP, India can satisfy west’s demand for jackfruit for a considerable point of time without having much negative fall out.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have a very reliable area and production data of jackfruit. But having a broad idea of the quantity of unutilized jackfruit, I am confident that India, if it plans in advance and manages the business well, has sufficient quantity of jackfruit to cater to the west for at least in the near future.

Can you envisage a future where the high demand for jackfruit for plant-based foods can create a better future for farmers and the people of the countries who grow it?

Of course. Farmers would be benefitted. But it’s tough to say as to what extent farmers would be benefitted. Like all other horticulture crops that are perishable, it’s the middlemen who decide the price and call the shots. In the given situation, avoiding middlemen is tough. But if government policies help more farmers groups and provide them with infrastructure facilities and tax benefits, the farming community, if it takes more initiative, can certainly corner more benefits.


So, Is Jackfruit the Answer?

There is no doubt that jackfruit has the potential to become a plant-based staple. However, more research needs to be done on the sustainability of the product not from a farming perspective but from transportation. How does shipping jackfruit’s from India compare to the carbon footprint of the production and transportation of meat and fish products that it aims to replace? 

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