The Australian New Crops Newsletter. Issue No 4, July 1995.

Australian Wild Herbs and the Bushfood Industry

By: Vic Cherikoff 

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, with our diversity of culture, communications and technology, the world depends upon eight plant species for the majority of its food supply. None of these is native to Australia.

There are advantages in diversity. Natural ecologies only retain their resilience against catastrophe if they maintain a high degree of biodiversity. The simpler the system, the less chance that it will be sustainable over time.

Our current food production methods are invariably biologically simple and are dependent on artificial chemicals, major capital investments, etc. In addition, agriculture rarely considers the real long-term costs of production: soil structure changes, fertility loss, eutrophication of waterways, exhaustion of aquifers and greenhouse effects. Even systems such as Permaculture often ignore the diverse native ecosystems they replace or the effect of nutrient run-off into the neighbouring countryside.

What is the relevance of this to the current food industry trend towards bushfoods? Bushfoods offer an opportunity to diversify our food production systems.

The contemporary bushfood industry was initiated by Bush Tucker Supply Australia (BTS Aust) in the mid- 1980s. More and more restaurants are beginning to use bushfoods with over 500 currently incorporating items in their menus. Bushfoods are featured in Qantas Airways' in-flight meals, on luxury cruise ships, in Parliament House, in Australian embassies overseas and many international hotel restaurants throughout Asia. There have also been minor incursions into the US and European restaurant markets. 

The bulk of the bushfood available in New South Wales is of plant origin but in other states, kangaroo, crocodile, wallaby, possum, wombat and emu have been available at various times.

The range of bushfoods selected by BTS Aust as commercial species is documented as having been or still being in use by the Aborigines as food, thus complying with the WHO/FAO definition of bushfoods as foodstuffs of a discrete population. This is relevant for future export markets if challenges are made as to whether the new products qualify as foodstuffs.

In the development of the bushfood industry, education of potential growers, manufacturers, end users and government has been necessary. Each has been stepping into the unknown. Growers have not had any previous experience to follow. For example, optimal plant densities, suitable selections, harvesting methods and post-harvest requirements have all had to be identified.

Chefs have had to adapt their methods of food preparation to suit the particular characteristics of the new foods. Manufacturers have been challenged with the task of determining the specific processes necessary to accommodate part-processed wild food flavourings.

Consumer education continues to be a challenge and politicians have needed convincing of the viability of the industry.

The bushfoods currently supplying the market comes from a mix of wild collections and harvests from planted species. The produce from organically grown indigenous species can be graded over and above the accepted organic grades for primary production.

Two classifications can be applied. The first classification, native quality, refers to organically grown indigenous species harvested from mixed system plantings. A sub-group may become necessary if some species can be organically grown in a monoculture in an ecologically sustainable way. Species grown in this fashion could include those which are found in monocultures in the wild (e.g. ephemeral pioneer plants or fire-weeds).

The second classification is wild quality and two sub-groups may also be necessary here. One would apply to opportunistic wild harvesting and a second to the regular wild collections made by Aboriginal communities exploiting their traditional knowledge and resources. A parallel here is the wild rice harvesting carried out by Canadian Indians; the rights of these people to carry out this harvesting is protected by legislation. The thirty bushfoods (in over two hundred forms) distributed by BTS Aust

have been used by niche market gourmet food producers to produce a marketing advantage through wild flavours in ice cream, biscuits, chocolates, pasta, smallgoods, preserves, sauces, chutneys, relishes, bread, cordial and tea. Supplies are now available in sufficient quantities for mainstream manufacturers to be considering their use in a wide spectrum of processed products.

Amongst the bushfoods of plant origin there is a range of herbs, spices, nuts, essential oils and fruits which could all be considered as uniquely Australian wild natural flavours. Most of the fruits are best applied in small amounts due to their flavour concentration. For this reason, the currently commercial range of plant bushfoods is more akin to herbs in their culinary use than to conventional fruits or vegetables.

However, the production of bushfoods is quite different from that of conventional herbs, since bushfoods grow as perennial ground covers, shrubs and trees. Agronomy of the larger indigenous species most closely resembles that of nut crops or tea but they are usually grown organically, in mixed stands at present. Research is needed to determine the appropriate companion plantings for bushfood species and the practicality of mixed plantings for pest control and efficiency of harvest.

Enrichland Polyculture® is a term coined to describe the agricultural blend of Aboriginal land management methods, agronomy and ecology needed for sustainable bushfood production. It comprises the following elements:

* organic growing methods,

* integration of the existing bushland,

* focus on the local indigenous species growing in mixed stands,

* utilisation of the Aboriginal resource management techniques,

* water harvesting or wastewater management, and

* some incorporation of exotic species.

This scheme is environmentally and culturally appropriate, complements other land uses and is suitable for urban as well as rural areas. 

Bushfood production provides an opportunity to redress the shortcomings of conventional agriculture. Enrichland Polyculture® can be a dedicated exercise or only part of a farming venture; windbreaks, shelter belts, buffer zones and home paddocks can include productive native species or can be used for supplementary on-farm foraging to supplement farm income.

There are a number of points to consider in growing native species for bushfood:

* is the local species economic? (Some bushfoods are good forage foods but may not be commercially significant)

* can a viable production system be based exclusively on native species?

* what indicator plants give an indication of the local environmental features, e.g. low soil nitrogen, shallow soils, high water table, etc.

* what species are necessary for local ecological stability?

* what are the efficient methods for harvesting?

* which species are best to use as pioneer plants?

* how will future expansion be accommodated?

* how densely can the plants be spaced?

* are any introduced species likely to be considered as weeds?

This system focuses on the indigenous natural environments of Australia and their maintenance within an economic production system. 

Post-harvest quality standards within the bushfoods industry are now being investigated in response to demands by manufacturers. Specifications for each bushfood ingredient have been produced to define quality, flavour strength, availability, applications, usage rates, storage recommendations, pack sizes and nutritional information. Continuous raw material development and refinement of purity is ongoing and microbiological assessment is conducted where necessary.

The development of the Australian bushfood industry is unique as few countries can offer such a range of indigenous foods. Domestically, the industry has little or no short-term competition, although, in the market place, bushfoods compete with other gourmet foodstuffs, such as camel, buffalo, blueberries, wild rice etc. However, there are threats looming. Just as the native Australian macadamia nut is known as the Hawaiian nut to most of the world, many other Australian bushfoods are currently being researched as commercial crops by overseas workers.

Attention has been directed particularly towards arid zone and rainforest species, including quandong, desert limes, lillipillies and wattles. Desert honey ants are being evaluated for production in the US. Australia's competitive edge on the world emu market may be lost, already. 

We have opportunity knocking at our door. We have to choose whether to open the door or move house.