Promoting Australian Native Foods for Community Change
by Dr Ken Dyer
Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies
University of Adelaide
Organically Registered Primary Producer,
President, Southern Vales Bush Foods Inc
Promoting Australian Native Foods for Community Change
by Dr Ken Dyer
Department of Geographical and Environmental Studies
University of Adelaide
President, Southern Vales Bush Foods Inc
Community changes sought and potentially achievable from more widespread, systematic growing of Australian Native Foods are easy to identify. They include:
the establishment of smaller, more closely integrated, but still economically viable local communities;
communities who do their members and their environments good by eating lower down the food/energy chain in more ecologically and nutritionally friendly ways.
The reasons why such changes are difficult to effect in practice are because the changes in behaviours, social attitudes and social structures needed entail at least a partial reversal of three currently dominant social trends: that towards globalisation, urbanisation and individualistic competition rather than community independence, selfsufficiency and social cooperation; that towards downgrading food production, preparation and eating as socially important rituals; and that which sees agribusiness becoming dominant and food becoming uniform and commodified.
But it is not just these social trends which impede the adoption of Australian Native Foods. The astounding successes of plant and animal breeding, cultivation, harvesting and processing practices associated with 'non-native' foods, remind us that native foods will have to undergo great improvements in productivity, harvestability, transportability and so forth before they can be used in anything more than boutique, niche markets.
We must effect the agricultural/horticultural changes needed to increase growing and using native plants in ways which do not destroy their ecological integrity and suitability, and which also reverse the dominant social trends identified.
Case studies of some specific crops including quandongs, lemon myrtle and macadamias, examination of problems establishing local businesses and a Peak Industry Body for bushfoods, and the treatment of Aboriginal interests in native food plants, show that successes thus far are limited.
1 Introduction and Background to the Australian Native Food Industry
The indigenous people of this country lived on the native foods of Australia for 50,000 years or maybe more.
Before European settlement Aboriginal Australians ate rich, exciting and balanced diets of seasonal fruits, nuts, roots, vegetables, meats and fish - all indigenous varieties and species and each totally adapted to this unique environment, the continent of Gondwanaland.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there is a range of food plants available capable of providing, in conjunction with game and seafood, a rich and healthy diet in all parts of Australia. What perhaps is surprising is that so few of these food plants have been utilised by those coming to this country in the last 250 years or so.
As a recognizable industry, the Australian Native Food Industry is less than 20 years old and, with but a handful of exceptions, is focussing on species which were virtually unknown to recent settlers as possible food sources until the last two decades. A few far sighted, dedicated and environmentally and culturally aware individuals got the industry going in the 1980s and, in the 1990s, organizations such as Greening Australia, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization (CSIRO) have lent their considerable weight to the development of the industry. Government departments themselves, it has to be said, have been very much at the tail end of these endeavours.
The mid-to later 1990s saw quite a few small growers and a handful of larger players planting Australian native food plants with the intention of making money. They, supported by a national conference, a RIRDC commissioned outlook report and a RIRDC promoted research and development plan, came together in a number of local and regional groups; these groups are currently wrestling with the establishment of a Peak Industry Body. A national journal has been established. Several universities and CSIRO have very significant research programs started and Australian native foods are becoming familiar items on restaurant menus, not just in this country but around the world.
This paper will consider how the Australian Native Food Industry (hereafter ANFI) as it has developed so far has promoted community change and how it could, in the near term future, continue more effectively to do so. Unfortunately there will be as much emphasis on the problems and impediments as on the achievements and possibilities. But realism in these matters is surely all-important.
First: why grow Australian Native Food plants and why establish an Australian Native Food Industry? These really are two separate questions, although obviously closely linked. Providing an answer to the second question self-evidently depends on providing satisfactory answers to the first; but it is quite logical to argue that we could and indeed should be growing Australian native foods without necessarily seeking to establish an Australian native food industry. One of the tensions in the embryonic industry that exists at present is between those who want to develop an industry which will look something like and be a standard part of the food industry we already have and those who want nothing of the kind.
For simplicity we might recognise five reasons for growing native foods.
It has long been one of the objectives of environmentalists to promote local, more or less self-sustaining, and certainly sustainable, local communities based on recognizable bioregions (Pepper 1996, Eckersley 1992). It also makes economic and social sense to have food producers and food consumers adjacent; local economies, local social networks, local skills and expertise flourish and energy expenditures and environmental impacts generally are minimised. Growing Australian native plants in a way and at a level which leads to the establishment of an Australian native food industry can clearly be part of the means of strengthening local communities (Trainer 1995, Douthwaite 1996).
2 The Current Size and Structure of the Industry
Commonly estimated figures for the size of the native food industry lie between $10-$15 million pa. This figure excludes the macadamia industry, which is currently of the order of $80 million which makes it one of Australia's largest horticultural industries. There are only a couple of businesses whose turnover exceeds $2million and there are thought to be about 500 active participants in the industry apart from many Aboriginal people from Land Councils involved up to now mainly in wild collecting although beginning to move into horticultural projects.
A snapshot, as it were, of the industry is given in Table 1 which has been compiled from a number of sources.
For our purposes, the Australian Native Food Industry (ANFI) can be divided into four sectors:
· wild harvesters
· small-scale polyculture/permaculture operations
· commercial, large-scale monocultures along traditional western horticultural lines
· distributers and end users, including wholesalers, exporters, processors, value-adders, restaurateurs, etc.
In addition there are research and development organisations such as CSIRO and a variety of organisations including commercial plant breeders and nurseries which are closely associated with the industry. Very few of the people or organisations associated with the ANFI are dependent exclusively on it.
The overall structure of the industry is shown in Figure 1 and some of the competing interests of the industry in Figure 2.
Wild harvesting is not sustainable, probably even at the current size of the industry, although the impact on some critical species are greater than on others. (See Table 2) Nevertheless, phasing out this part of the industry - which is likely to happen over the next few years - will have to be done sensitively, given that in many Aboriginal communities income from this activity is very significant. But one of the objectives of the ANFI could, and perhaps should, be - conceptually at least - the deliberate establishment of ecosystems which can be harvested sustainably.
The rhetoric of Agenda 21, one of the main outcomes of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the so-called Earth Summit, recognises that sustainable harvesting of ecosystems is "essential to the cultural, economic and physical well being of indigenous people" (Johnson 1993: 416)
There are many other problems with wild harvesting including cost, uncertainty of supply, quality and toxicological issues. Up to and including the present, the majority of the produce of the ANFI has been and is sourced from wild harvest. This is clearly unsustainable. Over the next few years, as plantations established recently come into production, this will change.
This paper largely ignores the commercial side of the industry - processors, exporters, the hospitality industry etc. Nor does it consider research and development, although detailed genetic and horticultural research clearly have their part to play in developing locally suitable species the growth of which can be part of local viable communities. The bulk of this paper will be a consideration of culture systems as they apply to and can be utilised for growing and obtaining significant yields from some of the commonly grown Australian native food plants.
3 The Five Reasons for Growing Australian Native Food Plants
3.1 For food: as a basis for a good diet and a complete Australian cuisine
Table 3 lists 30 genera of plants which can be grown in southern Australia. Well over half of these genera have at least two and in some cases very many species which have commercial potential as food plants. The genus Acacia is represented byu over 650 species in Australia and Solanum has about 80 species native to Australia. Not all Acacia or Solanum are edible - indeed many are toxic, but I cite these statistics and give some details in Tables 4 and 5 to indicate the geographic spread and dietary potential of Australia's native plants.
Of course only a fraction of these potential food plants have been subject to any significant genetic, horticultural development, but the list of those which have is still impressive.
One of the larger commercial suppliers of plants for the ANFI, Australian Native Produce Industries PL, lists in its 1998 price list 58 species. Page (1998) has information on an additional half a dozen species with significant commercial potential, and Berkinshaw (1998) mentions several more. A number of reports have suggested that 15 or so of these should be concentrated on at present as having the best prospects in the short to mid term. Most of the traded value comes from a dozen or so species which, as Table 6 shows, seem to satisfy the requirements that they can feed and make money for their growers and play useful roles in revegetation and maintenance of biodiversity roles.
These days, the web is the place to get the latest (if not always yet the best) information and http://users.academy.net.au/~samantha/bushfood.html has, amongst other things, detailed taxonomic, horticultural and culinary details on more than a dozen native food species. For the more traditionally minded, the books by industry pioneers Bruneteau, Cherikoff, Isaacs and Robins demonstrate what has been achieved thus far.
There seems no doubt, then, that in their range of tastes, textures, food values and genetic potential for further improvement, Australian native foods can become the basis of a whole new cuisine and an economically important industry. It has already happened to the macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia , M heterophylla and hybrids between them). The quandong (Santalum acuminatum) and lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) are the subject of vigorous and productive research programs at present (CSIRO 1996). Page (1998) concludes that there is considerable genetic diversity within a number of propulations of muntries (Kunzea pomifera) that he studied, and, as shown in Table 7, PBR protected varieties have been established in at least 15 species of Australian native food plants (Berkinshaw 1998).
3.2 For money
I have said above that growing Australian native foods seems to be able to make money for their growers; just how much money, though, is problematic. There is no doubt that some of the financial estimates for returns from the industry are little more than guess work and are wildly inaccurate. For example, ANPI (1998) suggest that for muntries a growers return of $24,750/ha could be achieved by the third year. Page (1998), more realistically, suggests a net return of $6,218/ha for year three and $13,746/ha for year four. But it is the experience of members of Southern Vales Bush Foods Inc. that there is little, if any, market for Kunzea, at least in South Australia and virtually no sales have been recorded, although several members are now well into the third year of growing this plant. Graham and Hart (1997) also warn that unless demand is boosted there is a danger of oversupply of some native food in just four or five years.
Markets for Australian native foods undoubtedly exist and can be developed further. But they are largely at the 'upper', expensive, exclusive end of the industry and not, in general, the sort of market which local, small scale, community and ecologically minded producers have in mind.
For example, the Draft Report on Marketing the Bushfood Industry, which reports on a RIRDC funded research project, says that
"Effort is now needed for members to commit: ... to create the groundwork to realise many of the opportunities provided by the Olympics ..."
"There is at least a segment of top class chefs and influential food writers who are enthusiastic about and strongly believe in native foods, which they see as underdeveloped. This is critical since it is very clear that there is a powerful top-down impact on the broader market's food adoption trends."
(Cherikoff 1999 personal communication)
The potential tension between a top-down market-driven, export oriented ANFI and the ecologically minded, community focussed polyculturists who form the majority of native food growers is so obvious as to need little further emphasis.
3.3 To protect and conserve the environment: revegetating, maintaining biodiversity and caring for the land
Obviously, Australian native foods grow where they grow and that, until two or three decades ago, was more or less where they were eaten. Modern horticultural techniques including irrigation, fertilisation, soil supplementation, pest control and selection of appropriate cultivars, allows many plants to be grown in locations well outside their original ranges. In the broader Adelaide region, all of the Australian native food plants recognized as having the greatest potential - including tropical, subtropical, arid and cool temperate species - can be and are being grown; although not always, it has to be admitted, in a commercially viable way.
To be commercially viable, plants must be grown at reasonable concentrations in accord with conventional horticultural principles. But these principles still allow considerable flexibility as to just how they are grown in detail. Broadly speaking, the alternatives, not all mutually exclusive, are:
Polyculture refers to the growing of a number of different species, either interleaved or in smallish blocks in close proximity. It is the only way in which anything like an ecosystem can be created; it maximises biodiversity; with an appropriate choice of species it can be a valid component of a regional revegetation strategy. Polyculture may be, but need not be, organic. It is the method of choice of all the specialist Australian native food producers in this part of South Australia and is certainly compatible with a commercial profit-making business.
Permaculture refers to a method/philosophy of working with nature, minimising energy and chemical use and maximising biodiversity. The aim, according to one of the founders of permaculture, is "... to create systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable which provide for their own needs, do not exploit or pollute and are therefore sustainable in the long term" (Mollison 1994: ??). A characteristic, but not a necessity, of permaculture, is that it tends to utilise a very large number of species, many times the number of species endemic to a particular area. The effect is to maximise productivity, minimizing farm inputs, while still maintaining genuine sustainability. Again, permaculture may be organic, but need not formally be so. there are many premaculture properties in this part of South Australia and two at least, the Brookmans' Food Forest and Kenton Range Tree Farm grow significant amounts of native food plants
Organic agriculture is defined by one of the major Australian certifying bodies, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Ltd (NASAA) as
A system of agriculture able to balance productivity with low vulnerability to problems such as pest infestation and environmental degardation while maintaining the quality of the land for future generations. (NASAA 1998 6)
The minimum requirements for certification is an organic farm plan which inter alia shows how the following will be managed:
windbreaks and buffer zones
NASAA go on to say that
Clearly organic agriculture is not just agriculture which eschews chemical inputs. It is a whole system of sustainable agriculture. (NASAA 1998: 5)
Monoculture is the form of agriculture with which most of us are familiar. It is the method by which most of our grain, fruit, vegetables and grapes are grown. There are monoculturists who are organically certified, including some growing each of the above products, and many more monoculturists minimise their chemical inputs; but not only is a great deal of western agriculture formally unsustainable - for instance, the energy inputs are greater than the energy harvested in many cases - but it is not community oriented. Among the many problems of rural communities in Australia and many other countries are declines in population and rural services. As properties and the paddocks in them get larger, as mechanisation and bulk handling become ever more dominant, as chemical inputs become ever greater, the number of people needed to produce the food bgecomes smaller and those who remain are specialist machinery contractors, chemical engineers and accountants. Unfortunately, the enormous pressures on all primary producers to go down this monoculture, high input road are very great. Among Australian native food plants macadamias are already largely monocultures and quandong, lemon myrtle, native citrus and even Acacia are not far behind.
The Australian native food industry must recognise that these economic pressures are there and that it is already a fair way down the monoculture road. Inducements must be found to ensure that local monocultures can be part of regional polycultures and that farms concentrating on just one or two plants nevertheless are given benefits to establish heritage agreement areas, windbreaks, appropriate ground covers, revegetate creeks, ridge lines and sensitive degraded areas of land, and so forth to increase biodiversity.
3.4 Preserving Australia's cultural and ecological heritage
A great deal of the knowledge of commercially promising native plant species has come from communities of indigenous people. There is still a great deal more 'traditional' knowledge which might be made available to scientists, horticulturalists and nutritionists. There is a moral imperative to reward the giving (or compensate the taking) of such knowledge. As important is the recognition that indigenous cultures can be maintained close to the land, that non indigenous cultures can learn to become closer to the land and that for both the marriage of a human way of life with the Australian landscape and all it contains is part of the heritage and culture of Australia. The smell of gumtrees, the call of the Kookaburra, the colour of Banksia blooms, the silent presence of kangaroos are components of what makes Australia home. So too are the country towns and the people in and around them. They will not endure unless we are determined that they should. Australia is rightly proud of the quality and variety of its food. To ensure that something of Australia's heritage is preserved in its city restaurants and country pubs, on its barbeques and around its camp fires is also preserving a part of Australia which all can recognise.
4 Growing Australian Native Foods for Community Benefit
Showing that growing Australian native foods is compatible with maintaining and enhancing local environments and local communities is not the same as showing that these phenomena actually are happening. Economic pressures on the ANFI are much the same as on most agricultural/horticultural enterprises and the outcomes at least in many cases are likely to be similar. Much of the current succesful developments seem to be inimical to local communities and look set to destroy the special characteristics of the ANFI.
4.1 Current horticultural and commercial developments
The great success of Australian native food plants is (or more correctly, are, because there are two species involved) the Macadamia. But these are grown almost everywhere in large monocultures and use pesticides, fertiliser and other inputs at the level of most other monocultural production systems. Macadamia were first commercialised in Hawaii and they are widely grown in various parts of the USA, southern Africa and several countries in Latin America. Most of the Macadamias grown today are grafted hybrids between M.heterophylla and M.integrifolia. Their commercial production is centred on northern NSW and southern Queensland and they are the basis of important research, horticultural and commercial activities which have added significantly to communities in that part of Australia.
The first orchard of quandong, Santalum acuminatum, was established in Quorn SA in 1974 based on seed collected from the southern Flinders Ranges (Powell 1998) and there are now several other orchards established from seed collected from superior trees identified at this and other early established experimental orchards. Commercial trees are now produced by grafting on to the best available rootstock. One of the distinct features and advantages of quandongs is their ability to thrive on irrigation from what by normal horticultural standards is very saline water (EC of 4776 microsiemens/cm with 1264 mg per litre of chloride) (Conroy 1996). This may provide opportunities for landholders in much of arid Australia to establish an additional crop to produce cash flow in addition to their traditional sheep or cattle raising activities. A feasiblity study on the establishment of an Australian native food industry in West Queensland has suggested that such an industry based on this and other arid zone plants would be economically sustainable (Phelps 1997). In other words careful plant selection, rigorous plant breeding and optimum horticultural techniques involving carefully monitored irrigation and heavy mulching can provide economic opportunities for communities in otherwise disadvantaged areas which are under considerable stress.
The next plant likely to be commercially exploited is the lemon myrtle Backhousia citriodora. Graham & Hart (1997) estimated that the total planting of lemon myrtle at that time was about 8ha which, at an estimated yield of 1.25 tonnes/ha, gave a total Australia wide production of 10 tonnes.
Bennet and Milgate (1996) tell us that
"Lemon scented myrtle ... are presently planted in commercial plantations in NSW and Qld"
"the expectation [is] that by 2001 production will exceed 500 tonnes dry weight B.citriodora and by 2005 120 tonnes B.anisata [aniseed myrtle]".
This implies a 50-fold increase in production in 5 years for lemon myrtle. Not without reason some authorities in the industry have labelled this "lemon myrtle madness".
There are many other examples. Acacia species are being grown in large cultures, as are bush tomatoes. Desert limes, wild limes and other native citrus are being grafted on to, and in some cases hybridised with conventional commercial citrus rootstock with a view to large-scale orchard cultivation.
At the other end of the production spectrum developments are also under way. Warrigal greens, Tetragonia tetragonoides are now being grown hydroponically. The objective, according to Ms Amani Ahmed of the Department of Environmental Horticulture at Sydney's University of Technology, is to produce crops of sufficient quantity and quality to make them a viable, and novel, product option for major supermarket chains. Hydroponics are used to produce faster growing, grit free crops of a more consistent quality. Hydroponics also allows better control of nutrients and can produce differing qualities of the same plant by varying the nutrient intake. This way the variety which will be best for commercial cultivation can be selected. Trials such as these it is claimed will overcome other problems which have held back native Australian plants such as Warrigal greens and bush tomatoes, from supermarkets and suburban kitchens. Warrigal greens have compounds in the leaves which prevent them from being eaten fresh, so they have to be blanched first. It is hoped to reduce the toxicity of the plants by controlling the nutrient intake to produce a leafy vegetable which can be mixed straight into a salad. The first trials of the Warrigal greens reduced the toxicity enough for the Warrigal greens to be eaten without blanching.
Other species on which this sort of laboratory based work is being done include Bush tomatoes, pigface, a plant with a red fruit described as a "salty strawberry", and native celery. The whole project, it is claimed, will lead to a major expansion of the native Australian food market. and allow fresh or frozen supply for international and domestic market. (The URL for the description of this work is www.uts.edu.au/new/archives/1998/february/0.9.html)
The consequence from all this is clear. Most Australian native food plants are likely to go the way of macadamias. They will lose the distinctive features of Australian native foods - they will certainly cease to be anything which could be called 'bush tucker', and their environmentally friendly, ecologically sustainable manner of utilisation could be drastically changed if not lost altogether.
4.2 What should be done?
The ANFI must organise nationally in a way which will allow the promotion and achieving of the five objectives of good food, adequate financial returns, maintained biodiversity, environmental protection, and cultural and heritage preservation outlined in the first part of this paper. The question then is how these objectives can be achieved in a way which maintains and enhances its local and regional character ie maintains and enhances community.
The first must surely be an emphasis on organic growing methods. This is in line with one of the major trends in agriculture/horticulture in the western world. Graham McNally, a former chair of Biological Farmers of Australia and a director of Kialla Fine Foods PL, is quoted as saying:
"Growth in the past 12 months has been very marked and that trend could well continue. It follows the overseas trend".
Ross Cowling, who runs United Organics, a Brisbane organic wholesaler, predicts that
"specialist fruit shops will move towards organics in their efforts to find a marketing edge and survive in the market ... I expect the local fruit and vegetable store will become the local organic fruit and vegetable store within five years or so, or it won't survive in the face of the competition from the supermarket chains".
Both of these quotes come from Acres 7, No. 2, March 1999. Other straws in the organic wind include the establishment of the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) in 1998 and the revised structure and strengthening of the Organic Produce Advisory Committee at the Federal Government level.
Second, there has to be formalization of and certification of polycultural production systems. More than one commentator has suggested that, alongside organic certification and registration schemes, there should be an enforceable scheme for Australian native foods along the following lines:
AWH native Australian food Wild Harvested
APPC native Australian food grown in Plantation Polyculture
AM native Australian food grown in Monoculture
But we need more than this. There should be encouragement for and a mechanism by which monoculturists can be part of regional polyculture or revegetation schemes. Catchment management and similar bioregional environmental organisations might certificate primary producers as
ARPC native Australian food grown in Regional Polyculture
or perhaps where a designated proportion of a property is given over to approved native species
ARSM native Australian food grown in Sustainable Monoculture
Third there has to be an emphasis on everything local and regional. This would include such things as the development of cooperative marketing schemes, local and regional biodiversity discovery and enhancement schemes and the like.
These are often a commercial and survival necessity. As Graham Brookman says in his characteristically blunt and illuminating way
Many of the food foresters with moderate surpluses over their household needs undergo a bitter realisation that they can give the products away but it is so time consuming to sell small quantities of food for profit that they may as well not do it. Food co-operatives have helped to solve that problem for the more creative operators. Many people started with the idea of self reliance but found that they were very good at growing particular crops and have expanded production to the point of commercial viability. It is they and the people who designed their properties for substantial surpluses who can answer the question of whether such properties can be commercially viable.
The examples we have are, of course, not just concerned with Australian native foods. The Green Line (www.the greenline.com.au)
"was established in 1994 to build visible, measurable, self-duplicating consumer demand for health and environment products".
It pays up to 10% of its income back to members who bring new members into the scheme, ie up to 10% of money spent by new customers is funnelled back to those who introduce them. Membership is doubling every six months. The latest activity of The Green Line is to acquire a long-term lease on 14.5 ha of farming land at Yarra Glen close to Melbourne which is used to provide garden allotments to members who can produce their own food and dispose of excess back to The Green Line.
There are many less commercial, more regionally focussed groups such as TROPO, the Tweed Richmond Organic Producers Association (www.nor.com/community/
organic/about tropo.htm). This group also has a very strong bushfood connection.
There are obvious opportunities for tourism and educational opportunities built around Australian native food production and associated ventures. Mother Natures Bush Tucker (www.big volcano.com.au/custom/bushfood/bushfood/html) in northern NSW is an exemplar here:
At Mother Natures Bush Tucker, our focus is directed towards the
promotion and preservation of our unique heritage, and in particular, thepropagation and use of indigenous plants.
With more than 250 edible plant species in the Wollumbin Volcano regionalone, there's a lot of material to work with when we run educationalseminars and workshops on Australian native bush foods, and how to grow anduse them!
We invite you to visit our Wildlife Refuge and native plant forest of regenerated native and edible rainforest to see for yourself, Mother Natures abundance.
Visitors are provided with valuable insight into the diversity of rainforest ecosystems, and shown a mixed species re-afforestation project in progress. The species used and plant selection is discussed, while you also learn how to plan and establish your own organic edible bush tucker garden.
Seminars and workshops address all types of planting and garden
environments, from large commercial operations to small edible bush gardens in your high rise apartment or unit. Programs are designed to foster a greater appreciation and understanding of our local natural and cultural heritage, and can be customized to your needs. These programs can be delivered at our premises or yours.
(from their web page at the above URL)
Graham and Anne Marie Brookman's The Food Forest at Gawler close to Adelaide, with their year round activities in permaculture design, organic farming, property planning and bushtucker growing courses is a local example.
If what I have argued has any validity, we would expect to see whole communities centred around organic, permacultural, native Australian oriented agriculture. It would be wrong to say that such communities are numerous - but there are some indications. Maleney in SE Queensland is world renowned (see Holdaway 1997, Trainer 1995 and Douthwaite 1996). The Bush Resources project of the Rural Enterprise Unit of the Central Land Council is an indication of the way indigenous people may retain their connection with the ANFI (http://www.clc.org.au/clc/Rural/bushfood.htm.).
Perhaps the best example - which involves more than one local government authority - state and commonwealth government departments, schools, industry and business organizations and local Aborigines - is the Arid Zone Bush Tucker Project at Broken Hill. I can do little better than reproduce the words of Steve Ross writing in issue 8 of Australian Bushfoods Magazine (1998: 12-13):
The Arid Zone Bush Tucker Project has been running since March 1998 with a funding cocktail from DEETYA (Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs). The Broken Hill City Council, The Central Darling Shire, Pasminco Mining and The Area Consultative Committee.
The aims of the project are to help establish the bush tucker industry within the far west region on a commercial base. There will be plantation and orchard growing of Australian bush food species suited to the region and the carrying out of research and development projects for the long term benefit of the developing industry.
Interested growers are supported in two forms, technical information and secondly with business planning and advice on the establishment of such a venture.
The project is networking through the state and Australia with information on the project and industry with the many people interested in Australian bush foods.
The regional site visits are carried out on a professional scale with site analysis that includes:
· measuring the area for design drawings
· soil analysis for technical support on soil improvement (soils highly alkaline)
· topography assessment for earth works to incorporate contour furrowing to reduce rainfall runoff
· deep ripping behind the contour furrowing for water absorption into the ground to conserve water within the soil
· mulching materials selection such as living (mulching plants) or organic materials
· irrigation design to enhance deep ripping growth and production
· plant species selection
· ongoing technical support when plants are in the ground for pest, disease and nutrient problems
· market and business support through the local BEC (Business Enterprise Development Centre) and packaging technologies
· working with people developing food, resale and product value adding within the region
· technical support to existing growers of quandongs within the region.
The project has also been involved with helping establish a bushfood and native nursery at Bourke with the Gundabooka DEP Aboriginal corporation. The nursery has high design standards with drainage, irrigation systems and on the job training in horticultural propagation and soil mixing for Australian native plants.
Research and development is also one of the aims the project is committed to, with a small program running a selection of eight species of Acacia. The research looks at selections of fast growing plants, pest and diseases resistance, seed yields, and importantly taste and nutritional values. The species selected for the trials are Acacia aneura, iteaphylla, kempeana, ligulata, longifolia, oswaldii, pycnantha and victoriae.
To create awareness of the Australian native food industry and its range of produce, the project staff work in with the Departments of Agriculture, Land and Water Conservation, State Regional Development and Fair Trading, National Parks and Wild Life Service, Agribusiness officers and West 200 and the local Aboriginal Corporation to give them a base for up-to-date technical and industry information. This also includes joint community development days with information and displays highlighting the diversity of industries that could provide economic avenues for the region.
A local primary school has taken on an educational role as well, with a term curriculum focus on bush foods. The project is also helping with an environmental grant application to create a bushfoods garden in the school grounds.
Pam Allen, the state Environment Minister, recently presented a cheque to the school after the hand back to the Aboriginal community of Mutawitji National Park. The garden has been started and some plantings of local bushfoods are in."
One of the models for the devlopment of the native food industry which might be looked at more closely is the establishment by the wine industry of designated wine-producing areas. Designations such as Coonawara, Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley and so on, are extremely valuable to wine makers and jealously guarded. They indicate, not a specific type of wine or grape, but an overall quality and perhaps a style of winemaking. These regions are defined on the basis of sharing climate, soil type and physical proximity but in many of them including the Barossa Valley and Mclaren Vale with which I am directly familiar, there is also a definite community feel which wine bushing festivals, food and wine events, musical festivals and so forth foster.
Field work, genetic research and plant breeding development programs to discover and develop new food crops and utilise the same sort of potential that has given us the wonderful array of fruit and vegetables - apples, blueberries, corn, ... wheat, yams, zucchinis - that we enjoy today. The trick will be to ensure that this research and development and resulting commercialisation does not result in the loss of species, strains and varieties of the sort that has resulted in us having only a handful of commercial varieties of most of these foodstuffs. At the moment this is not the case. Every survey is bringing to light the incredible amounts of genetic variability which exists in Australian food plants.
Under conventional PBR approval systems there is a clear financial incentive for collectors and plant breeders to find and capitalise on new species, varieties and genetic variants. There is a moral imperative to reward those peoples and communities where their local knowledge contributed significantly and ownership of land and resources should be recognised. there is also an ecological and environmental imperative to maintain biodiversity, especially in the regions being developed for commercial production. These demands can each be met by ensuring that when a new specimen with commercial potential is identified, a binding agreement is drawn up between the finder, the local community and the organisation charged with developing that plant's potential. This would ensure that, amongst other things, a royalty is collected at point of sale in the case of food plants to ensure further exploration, research and development and community suppport where appropriate. This is one way in which Aboriginal knowledge, prior ownership and ongoing relationship with the land can be recognised, although the principle involved is a perfectly general one.
It should be clear that government at all levels must support these initiatives, partly through tax breaks, research funds, infrastructure support and so forth; partly through legislation on such things as genetic engineering, biocide use, environmental controls; and partly through resisting those aspects of globalisation and so-called free trade which provide people the world over with the lowest common denominators of variety, environmental protection and quality of life provisions. But although governments can help, their support thus far has not been good and the industry must not rely on governments. (The Senate conducted an enquiry into the Commercialisation of Australian Native Wildlife which was published in 1998 and the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of the Victorian Parliament has just published a Discussion Paper on Utilisation of Victorian Native Flora and Fauna so perhaps things are changing.)
5 A Conclusion About Australian Native Foods
It is clear that Australian native plants have the potential to contribute significantly to the range of food plants and hence the range of food products here in Australia and world wide. They are at the moment, with but one exception, either totally undeveloped genetically or are at the beginning of a very promising program of plant breeding. The number of plants investigated compared to the number of possibilities known to exist and those which have begun to be developed show impressive amounts of genetic variation, ie potential for selection. The plants themselves originate in all the regions of Australia, tropical, temperate, arid, coastal and upland. Some of them are closely related to well known species in the rest of the world including rubus species, citrus species, ficus species, solanum species and others. Possibilities for grafting and hybridisation are obvious. Others are unlike anything known elsewhere in either taste or texture and some have levels of vitamins, fats and proteins which are rarely matched in fruits and vegetables we already have.
But when the plants have been selected, hybridised, grafted and grown in climatic, soil conditions quite unlike those in which they naturally occur they are very different from 'bush' plants. In many respects the plants and their products will be developed and internationalised like corn or potatoes, for example whose origins lie in the new world but which have been taken up if not over by the old. Australia has already given the world the macadamia, acacia seed and Warrigal greens (and many plants producing essential oils, flowers and foliage), there is no reason why it should stop there.
The Australian native plant industry is lucky in that it has the raw materials - along with Australian native fauna - for a whole new cuisine and food industry. This can and should be established in a way which is ecologically sustainable ie which maintains both human communities and the ecosystems of which they are a part. Such an industry will not need genetic engineering and it should be as organic, polycultural and locally based as we can make it. It should look to Australia's established local communities, particularly those already established around local products and local events for its foci of growth. Because of its direct links with the land and local ecosystems which can be maintained and enhanced it can serve to remind all Australians of their links with their land.
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Table 1 The Australian Native Food Plant Industry
Table 2 Rare, Endangered and Vulnerable
Species of the Australian Native Food Plant Industry
A species is classified as rare if it is rare in the wild but without any identifiable threat. This may include large populations in a restricted area, or small populations over a wide range (Leigh & Brigge 1996).
A species is classified as vulnerable if it is not currently listed as endangered but is at risk over the longer time period of 20-50 years of disappearing from the wild (Leigh & Briggs 1996).
A species is classified as endangered if it is in serious risk of disappearing from the wild within 10-20 years if current threats continue (Leigh & Briggs 1996).
Source: compiled by Berkinshaw (1998)
Table 3: Some of the Australian Native Food Plant Species
Suitable for Growing Commercially in southern Australia
* One or more other species in the same genus which also have commercial potential
Table 4 Some of the Edible Species of Solanum
Table 5 Some Acacia Species Whose Seed is Potentially Useful in the Australian Native Plant Food Industry
Some of the Notable Food/Nutritional Characteristics of Australian Native Food Plants
Table 7: Native Food Plants Subject to Plant Breeders Rights
* Although the fruits of lilly pillies and riberries are used within the industry, the development of these varieties is attributable to the plant's common usage as an ornamental in parks and gardens.
Source: compiled by Todd Berkinshaw of the University of Adelaide , from http://www.dpie.gov.au/agfor/pbr.html, September 1998