Climate change threatens Australia’s burgeoning native foods industry. Traditional knowledge paired with Western science might be the answer, say experts.
Long touted for their far-reaching health, cultural, environmental and social benefits, Australia’s native foods and the industry surrounding them look to be on the precipice of a boom.
But as markets wake up to the potential of this produce, another global factor has become a cause for concern.
It’s hard to believe that native foods and ingredients were once overlooked by mainstream industries. They’re now in high demand. The estimated value of the industry in 2019 was approximately $20 million – excluding the macadamia nut, which alone has carved out a $200m market.
But as the booming native food scene flourishes, the lands and waters it has thrived on for thousands of years are being put under pressure by climate change.
The recent State of the Environment (SoE) report highlighted the fact that Indigenous knowledge and culture would be affected by rising temperatures and changing climate patterns.
Wuthathi and Meriam woman Dr Terri Janke says natural disasters and rising sea levels will be among the many ways Indigenous communities will bear the brunt of climate change.
Janke, a lawyer, was a co-chief author of the SoE – the first Indigenous person appointed to the role.
“There’s no doubt about it that climate change will impact Indigenous people disproportionately,” she says. “It’s already happening with rising sea levels in the Torres Strait and the changes of water coming in through in Arnhem Land and Kakadu.”
“When the climate changes, so does the traditional knowledge and the Indigenous adaptation towards the solution.”
Climate change has also begun to impact the way native foods businesses and nurseries grow and harvest their foods.
Founder of Kakadu Kitchen in Darwin, Bininj man Ben Tyler says he’s concerned about the impact of climate change on the native foods industry.
“The creeks and billabongs where we collect our water lilies on my mum’s country, it’s all beautiful wetland country which is a powerhouse of bush tucker,” he says.
“But when we get to the year 2030, scientists say that the sea will rise and it will accelerate. So maybe within five or 10 years from the year 2030, that whole area of Kakadu will be under sea water and we’ll be fishing for sea turtle instead of freshwater turtle.”
A number of native food nurseries and corporations have begun taking proactive steps to prevent climate change from harming the native food industry.
Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation is in the process of establishing its own Wurundjeri bush food garden and orchard on their site Coranderrk, north-east of Melbourne in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, with plans to establish their own “supermarket”.
Wandoon Estate chairman and Elder Dave Wandin says for him, warnings about climate change started with his father, who told him to beware of its impacts.
“Climate change has been the driver here,” he says.
“My father told me this back in the mid-1990s. He said, ‘son, learn all you can about your culture because one day you are going to be looking after this land, and people are going to be coming and asking you, how can we survive in the climate that is coming?’ I laughed when he said that to me.”
Wandin now understands the advice his father gave him and is committed to making sure his father’s Country is protected.
“We’ve already accepted that climate change is coming and so we’ve done some very careful, what we call ‘reading of Country’ to work out what will grow where without exhausting the nutrients in the ground,” he says.
“Modern technologies such as solar power are some of the best materials to build out our structure.
“There are also certain areas where we won’t be able to grow bush foods, so we will dedicate that to biodiversity preservation. The reality is by giving some of your land to biodiversity and conservation, you can actually increase the productivity, even though you have less land to do it on.”
Nalderun, an Aboriginal agricultural services organisation based in Castlemaine, Mount Alexander Shire – Dja Dja Wurrung Country – in Victoria, also addresses climate change. An educational-based organisation, Nalderun aims to educate the future generation about Indigenous native foods and Country.
Executive officer Kathryn Coff says they aim to teach younger students about climate change so it is part of their worldview.
“We talk about our relationship with it (climate change) like we are part of it,” she says. “So we believe that everything we do now has a complete impact on how we do Country. We should be role modelling how we should be on Country and [how] we should be talking about it.’
Black Duck Foods at Mallacoota, in eastern Victoria’s Yuin Country, have found ways to combat climate change so their native produce will not be affected. The region was among the nation’s worst hit during the 2019-20 Black Summer fires.
General manager Bram Mason says Black Duck uses traditional methods to address the challenges they’re seeing and anticipating.
“Traditional methods sort of work with the changing climate,” he says. “We do manage the above-ground vegetation to make sure that it’s vigorous and it’s in a healthy state so if a wildfire does go through, it will survive that.
“Because of the methods we use, the intensity of a wildfire would actually drop quite significantly once it hits the areas we are managing because they are managed for a biodiverse agriculture system.”
Biodiversity, Mason says, is key to what keeps their plant and nutrient systems healthy.
“Because we’re keeping the system diverse and healthy it can react and survive and be tolerant to changing temperatures,” he says.
Professor Stephen van Leeuwen, Australia’s first Indigenous chair of Biodiversity and Environmental Science, who’s based at Curtin University, in Perth, says it is yet to be seen how stakeholders will respond to pressures placed on Indigenous ecosystems and people.
“It will impact on those culturally significant species, particularly the bush tucker, bush foods and bush meats and the availability of those to Traditional Owners,” he says.
“Indigenous Australians, particularly those in remote, isolated areas are going to be heavily impacted by higher temperatures and so forth. But economically, they’re at the poorer end of society so they have the least ability to respond and to adapt to these changes and challenges.”
Van Leeuwen says the best chance to protect the native foods industry is for traditional knowledge and Western science to work hand-in-hand.
Emma Ruben is a writer at the National Indigenous Times.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.