HONOLULU (AP) – For centuries, residents of the South Pacific have used the noni plant to treat a host of ills, from breathing problems to aches and pains.

Now some farmers and business developers are looking to this traditional healing plant to expand Hawaii’s agricultural market.

But what sounds like an obscure niche market is actually big business.

In eight years, Utah-based Tahitian Noni International has expanded to sell noni products across the globe, reporting $500 million in sales last year alone.

“We’ve also spawned an industry. There are probably 250 companies around the world that make noni products,” said Andre Peterson, spokesman for the company that uses noni plants grown in French Polynesia.

Just about every part of the noni plant has some claimed medicinal properties. But the most popular form is the distinctive-tasting – some even say “nasty” – juice of the noni plant’s odd-looking, whitish fruit.

The noni industry in Hawaii is just beginning to take off, said Spencer Kamauoha, vice president of the Kamauoha Foundation, which promotes economic development on Oahu.

In 2003, the foundation was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Administration for Native Americans to develop an 80-acre noni farm in Waialua and a fruit processing plant at Wahiawa. Those funds just began to flow this fall.

And last month, the foundation was notified that it would be getting another $84,000 from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and $75,000 from Honolulu’s community investment fund, Kamauoha said.

The project got another boost after supporters discovered 22 small farmers on the Big Island who were growing the plants and needed a processor.

Kamauoha Farms now receives 16,000 pounds of the fruit from Hilo each week and will be opening up a collection warehouse in Kona for local farmers this weekend.

While it ships most of its product to a distributor on the mainland, the company plans next month to put its own brand of noni fruit juice on shelves, labeling it North Shore Noni.

“So what I think needs to be developed, too, is the Hawaii brand and the Hawaii source as a source of noni in its own right,” Kamauoha said.

That idea has caught the attention of House Speaker Calvin Say and Rep. Helene Hale, who co-sponsored a resolution in support of the local noni industry.

“The problem is that we need some help with this industry to really show people what it really can do,” Hale told the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing on the resolution Wednesday.

Hale also offered her own testimonial. After a recent fall, she found herself with a black eye. A friend suggested her eye could be cured with a heated-up noni leaf.

The eye cleared up in a day, Hale said.

While most of the support for the noni plant’s medicinal value is similarly anecdotal, there are some scientific studies underway.

The University of Hawaii Cancer Research Center has been conducting human trials using capsules of powdered noni extract since 2001.

While there have been no adverse effects on patients, there also hasn’t been anything positive attributable to the plant, said Dr. Brian Issell, director of clinical trials at the center.

Originally funded by the National Institutes of Health, the center is looking for local funding to continue the work.

“I think we need some answers on it,” Issell said. “I would hate to not get some answers about noni.”

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