Issue 1 ~ Mar-Apr 1997
Bushfarms, Wild Harvest or Both?
In this first issue of Forum, we look at what me be one of the greatest challenges facing the industry - monoculture vs polyculture. This is a big issue and not one which will go away as the industry matures. The editor and Larry Geno open the discussion...
The following is an extract from an excellent article by Larry Geno that first appeared in Bio Links.
A dramatic growth in commercial marketing over the last five years has created opportunities for commercial plantations, a genuine Australian cuisine and a profit incentive for biodiversity conservation.
There can be problems, though, where opportunistic harvesting of valued wild specimens threaten their health, or the original highly diverse wild stocks are replaced by a vulnerable simplified monoculture system.
In commercial production, previously unused wild species have become valued more highly, creating opportunities for identification, evaluation and conservation. This applies whether the bush food species is wild, gathered, or grown in plantation.
One example is the traditional "bush tea tree" groves (Melaleuca alternifolia) in northern NSW that were left uncleared during agricultural development. Some of these trees, with high specific oil content, were then used as the basis for clonal propagation for plantation establishment.
Many bush food growers are obtaining as wide a genetic base as possible for the development of improved selections for specific uses.
When rare species are propagated, they can become less endangered. Seed and other propagation materials produced by commercial bush food plantations can be used for nurseries and households as well as to support native wildlife. Examples here include the endangered small leaf tamarind (Diploglottis campbellii) and Davidson Plums. In the past, new crop developments resulted in single best varieties, protected under such terms as plant breeder's rights or plant patenting. The bushfood industry, however, recognises its dependence on existing diversity of present and potential crop species. Growers are increasingly replicating their diversity in mixed polyculture plantations of many compatible species with an eye to ecological sustainability.
In the northern rivers region of NSW, growers and processors are developing a register of plant varieties.
This records characteristics and identifies source plants so that products of known character can be confidently traded.
In contrast with the simplification resultant from plant variety ownership, this strategy will maintain biodiversity while establishing predictability and reliability for processors and markets. The register will also be used for coordinating production, processing and marketing and can be used as a tool to monitor or discover irresponsible wild harvesting. In northern NSW, plant explorers who locate or evaluate the com-riql potential of bushfood plants, also assist biodiversity conservation of potentially commercial specimens by entering a binding agreement with a propagating nursery. Royalties collected at the point of sale fund further plant exploration.
Bushfood growing is possibly the most sustainable form of agriculture and is a model for ecologically sustainable development. Plantations of mixed local native plants which are naturally adapted to their specific environment are healthier when compared with conventional agriculture.
Natural system interactions for nutrient cycling and pest control require less dependence on fertilisers, pesticides and other high cost inputs. Social sustainability derives from the generally labour intensive harvesting and assists regional employment with a multitude of value adding opportunities. We also have an international export opportunity in a unique Australian cuisine.
The bushfoods industry has evolved from the enthusiasm of individual harvesters who saw that the landscape could be used profitably in a way which compliments the natural ecology.
The future also offers considerable challenge to us. Israel is already commercially growing Australian native plants that we do not yet have in production. Some sectors see our industry as either a threat to conventional forestry or to the ecosystems which supply our stock.
On the whole, however, the future is bright, biodiverse and profitable, not to mention tasty.
Larry Geno is a an ecologist, Principal of Agroecology Associates and proprietor of Northern Rivers Bush Tucker Foods, Lismore, NSW.
Sustainability is the word of the nineties and though it's used in a wide variety of applications, it is most often applied to our agricultural and horticultural pursuits.
Is the cotton industry sustainable? Is hemp? What about wildflowers or exotic fruit?
Step back - what exactly do we mean by sustainable? Is it economic viability? Environmental? Cultural? A bit of all three?
In the case of bushfoods, it's definitely a case of all three. Here we have an exciting and still young industry which touches on sensitive issues of intellectual copyright, involves a wide range of growing and harvesting methodologies and is still coming to grips with facets of long term economic viability.
It's an industry composed of broad-acre producers, small landholders, indigenous and non-indigenous wild harvesters, co-operatives and back yarders. This diversity offers both an exciting vitality and the scope for fragmentation in a sector which badly needs cohesion and co-operation if it is to be sustainable.
I believe, over the next few years, we will enjoy some lively discussion about the relative merits of monoculture, polyculture and wild harvest
And there are, of course, other differences between the two which will also influence the way the industry proceeds over the next, very important five years.
There is one over-riding similarity between these two and that is the need for national guidelines. Guidelines on what exactly can be considered (and labelled) authentic bushfood (is the microcitrus-mandarin cross a bush-food?)
Guidelines on sub-labelling within the larger 'bushfood' classification (organic, chemical free, etc - see Vic Cherikoffs article this issue.)
These guidelines should be more broad-based but complementary to any agreed standards. They should be, as the name implies, a guide for potential and existing growers and harvesters. They will need to be framed by the industry as a whole if they are to have relevance and acceptance.
What are some of the most obvious differences between the two?
High harvest costs
Non commercial volumes Environmental issues
Low incidence of pests/diseases Difficult to monitor adherence to standards
Some issues about traditional ownership
Low start up costs for harvester Over-harvesting issues
High food quality
Some issues about authenticity
Higher start-up costs for grower Biodiversity issues
Lower harvest costs
Increasing incidence of pests/diseases? Relative 'openness' to monitoring
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