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  • by Lindy Schneider
Published in Backyard Farmer March 2011 (Earth Garden) and Herbology June 2010

Backyard Farmer pages 1, 2, 3 and 4 ‘Native foods’ by Lindy Schneider

The latest food trend to hit Australian shores is not new at all. Regardless of the current hype that surrounds native foods, we cannot escape the irrefutable truth – these foods have existed for at least 40,000 years and we have ignored them for most of that time.

Native foods have been the foundation of an indigenous diet providing essential nutrients and sustenance long before they became the latest fashionable condiment for a restaurant menu or home pantry. The Australian food industry has finally discovered what our Indigenous neighbors always knew, and the food world is listening.

The growing interest in native food, (or bush foods) could be considered long overdue, but it is our sudden explosion in demand that is both the challenge and the  boon for native food producers.

First bought to our attention in 1988 by TV program Bush Tucker Man featuring Les Hiddins, a reality-style program that featured the sourcing and use of native foods, the industry is poised for significant growth both in Australian and overseas. From humble beginnings in the late 1980s, the industry grew to around $14M in 2004, according to CSIRO research.

Visit your local specialty food store today and you will find a vast array of native foods on the shelf: from bush tomato sauce to wattle-seed based pastas, pepper-berry BBQ rubs and quandong jellies. Live in an upmarket suburb and even your local supermarket will carry these lines. In a ‘value-added’ form these products are becoming increasingly accessible to the Western palate.

The bush food industry is unlike other primary produce sectors as it relies heavily on wild harvest. With growing demand, the challenges of growing commercially viable quantities, providing year round availability on highly seasonal products and delivering consistent quality that meets Australian regulations, all become apparent.

But there are several other important issues that must be addressed before the bush food industry is over run by opportunists and marketers.

Maintaining the integrity of bush food products is vital. Already online bush food forums comment on the dilution of flavor they are experiencing in commercially packaged bush foods. Cost cutting, by using an essence of the food rather than the food itself, is already being touted as one of the biggest threats to the industry.

Native food purists also dislike the ‘across cultures’ approach being taken by some manufactures who blend native spices into Egyptian-style dukkah mixes in an attempt to drive sales. There is a discussion to be had about adapting native foods to Western sensibilities whilst remaining authentic to traditional usage.

Native Foods are intrinsically woven into the history of Indigenous Australia and this heritage needs to be acknowledged. This requires more then placing a logo on a label or a dot painting on packaging. The knowledge, use and methods of harvesting and preparing bush foods are a cultural dynamic that must be respected. Deep inter-relationships between seasons, nature and environment have been studied and utilized for tens of thousands of years, and modern man with his belief in the dominance of modern agricultural techniques, should be reminded to consult the true growers of these foods.

Indigenous communities should benefit most from the current growth in the native foods industry.  Proceeds must flow to and support the right people – the people who have always cultivated them.

South Australia is the leading Australian state in native food production and in the past decade the government has committed resources to the development of growers and distribution alternatives. Most, however, lack funds for marketing and education and are still to instigate a strong Indigenous presence in the workforce.

Mike and Gayle Quarmby of Reedy Creek are pioneers in this regard, linking their native plant nursery with the desert lands of several northern Indigenous communities in South Australia.

Knowledge, skills, machinery, resources, and profits are shared amongst the various communities with the emphasis on developing sustainable growing and harvesting practices. Their program and financial investment now provides employment for many Indigenous men and women and brings new life to struggling communities.

The concept of eating Indigenous food off our land is an environmentally sustainable and ethically sound proposition. The concept that Indigenous communities be sustained and supported by the bush food industry is equally sound.

Carolyn Briggs, Indigenous Proprietor, Tjanabi Restaurant, Melbourne, sums up her approach to Native Foods by saying, ‘we take responsibility for knowing exactly the path our food has taken, and minimizing waste, to run a sustainable establishment. We will give back to the earth that feeds us by supporting local produce, art and communities and promoting a holistic, eco-conscious attitude.’

Australians have adopted foods from many cultures, and now it’s our turn to offer something, beyond pavlova and lamingtons, in return. If we are to give as good as we get, then we need to give what is due to our bush food friends.

References:

Australian Native Produce Industries, The Native Food Industry in SA, Anthony Hele, November 2001

Australian Bushfoods Magazine online

Contact Lindy

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