The earthy flavours of bush tomato and mountain pepperberry explode in my mouth as I bite into a bacon and egg pie at Aboriginal Bush Traders, a shop, gallery and café in the heart of Darwin.
Served on a breakfast plate alongside a protein ball with Kakadu plum and granola infused with desert lime, this meal is part of manager Samoane Regattieri’s mission to catapult native ingredients from marginal to mainstream.
“Native ingredients are so potent and so strong,” she says, adding that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been harvesting “bush tucker” off the land for tens of thousands of years.
Against a backdrop of dire predictions about the planet running out of food, recent research suggests that these same ingredients may even ease food security fears and shore up the future of farming in Australia.
Dr Adam Canning, who holds appointments at James Cook University and Southern Cross University, was keen to challenge the practices around conventional agriculture.
Such practices typically relied upon intensively farming monocultures like wheat, barley and sugarcane, and modifying the environment via land clearing, drainage, irrigation, tilling, and the use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.
“I’m thinking, ‘What if we would look at the other way around? What actually grows here naturally?’,” he says.
In his research, published in October in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Canning used random forests, a machine learning method, to model the potentially suitable distributions of 177 native food and forage species across Australia, given their individual climate and soil preferences.
What if we would look at the other way around? What actually grows here naturally?Dr Adam Canning
Species data was drawn from the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), while climate variables were extracted from the WorldClim2 database and soil variables drawn from the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia.
Canning produced a multi-coloured map which neatly plugs gaps in our existing knowledge as to where different native species can thrive around the country.
It’s anticipated that this will enable farmers to identify which native crops could be supported within their existing farming systems and help agricultural industries scope the production potential of different native crops.
The research identified some parcels of land that could potentially support up to 120 different native crops.
Areas with the climate and soil characteristics most suitable for supporting the highest diversity of native crops included the coastal areas of New South Wales, Victoria and northern Tasmania, and Queensland’s Wet Tropics.
The native crops with the most expansive potential distribution include acacia trees and native millet (both of which have edible seeds), Maloga bean (much like a root vegetable), bush plums (which have olive-sized fruits), emu apple (also known as native cranberry), and bush tomatoes.
“Given the need to urgently reduce nutrient and sediment losses from the sugarcane-growing regions of the Great Barrier Reef catchment, I also compiled a list [of] species predicted to be widely suitable across the intensive sugarcane-growing areas of the Burdekin region (dry tropical climate) and the Ingham (wet tropical climate) regions,” Canning wrote.
These two regions alone could potentially support three of the six most in-demand native crops, being lemon myrtle, Davidson plum and bush tomato.
Canning also identified a high diversity of potential native crops within the Murray-Darling Basin, which has historically seen large water demands causing declines in freshwater ecological health, along with social and cultural impacts, including the loss of livelihoods for indigenous communities.
Integrating native crops could thus help improve the Basin’s freshwater ecosystems.
“Vegetation native to the Basin have been shown to be highly resilient to prolonged extreme drought [so] a landscape dominated by a diversity of [native crops is] unlikely to demand the same volume of water as existing crops,” he wrote.
This would allow more natural hydrological regimes to improve river health.
The Murray-Darling Basin is also suitable for growing five of six in-demand native foods, being lemon myrtle, native citrus, Davidson plum, quandong and native pepper.
“However, focussing solely on these five crops may lead to non-native monocultures simply being replaced by native monocultures that are devoid of the benefits of multi-species crops and do little
to improve the environmental woes of the present agricultural system,” Canning warns.
“Instead, these crops should be grown in combination with other native crops suitable within the same land parcel, which will require further investigations into the design of native agroforestry regimes.”
Canning’s framework may also provide a foundation for the development of Indigenous-led business and supply chain models in the bush foods sector.
According to a study undertaken by University of Sydney researchers on behalf of the Australian Native Food & Botanicals (ANFAB), the bush food industry was worth $81.5 million in 2019/20, with the potential to grow to around $160 million by 2025.
However, drawing on figures presented at the inaugural Indigenous Native Foods Symposium in 2019, Regattieri points out that Indigenous Australians represent fewer than two percent of the providers across the supply chain.
Among the projects working to address that is a $1.5 million five-year Australian Research Council-funded (ARC) project, ‘A Deadly Solution: Towards an Indigenous-led bushfood industry’ in which The University of Queensland researchers are working with Indigenous communities to commercialise native bushfoods and ornamental plants.
The project, designed to get native food products into the marketplace, is being led by UQ Adjunct Professor Dale Chapman, an Indigenous chef, and CEO of My Dilly Bag.
“There are plenty of great bushfoods out there that most people have never heard of, seen or tasted,” Chapman says.
“Together we’ll be developing exciting – and delicious – native Australian bushfoods, while creating sustainable, intergenerational Indigenous businesses.”
“There are plenty of great bushfoods out there that most people have never heard of, seen or tasted.”Adjunct Professor Dale Chapman
Other projects on the go include the development of a soft drink using native ingredients and less sugar, and the cultivation of native plants which might provide an alternative to salt.
Jessica Cartwright, a PhD student at The University of Queensland is working to develop a soft drink substitute using Kakadu and Davidson plum, which, it is hoped, will reduce the consumption of sugary drinks in remote Indigenous communities.
“In Indigenous communities there are higher rates of sugar-sweetened beverages consumed than compared to the rest of the country,” says Cartwright.
“We know this leads to negative health outcomes – chronic diseases like type two diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.”
Cartwright says the research will pursue the route of commercialisation down the track “but all the profits would be going to the Indigenous communities”.
Michelle On from Kiril Park Wild Harvest said it was sad to see chronic diseases affecting Indigenous people when traditional foods had so many nutritional benefits.
“Encouraging people to change eating habits and include more bushfoods is putting cultural foods back in a staple diet, and will not only have nutritional benefits but will boost cultural knowledge of bushfoods,” she says.
Meanwhile, a group of plants used by Indigenous Australians as food and medicine could provide a nutritious alternative to salt.
“Encouraging people to change eating habits and include more bushfoods is putting cultural foods back in a staple diet, and will not only have nutritional benefits but will boost cultural knowledge of bushfoods.”Michelle On
PhD candidate Sukirtha Srivarathan from the UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) has found that edible halophytes – including samphire, seablite, saltbush and seapurslane – are nutritious and have potential as a bushfoods business opportunity.
“They’re a good source of protein and most of them are a good source of fibre, minerals and trace elements, especially calcium, iron, potassium and zinc, while some also have considerable amounts of folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin C,” she says.
QAAFI Senior Research Fellow Dr Michael Netzel said the salt-tolerant halophytes are a sustainable food source.
“Halophytes have a lot of bioactive compounds, so it’s a more sustainable and healthy choice to eat as a salad or side dish,” Netzel said.
“It’s these little things; if you can replace something with something healthier rather than changing the whole diet, it can have an impact.”
Note: Denise Cullen dined at Aboriginal Bush Traders courtesy of Tourism NT.