Rebooting the Australian native food industry

It would be fair to say that Australian native foods haven’t yet realised their potential.

For example, there is only really one Australian plant that has been fully domesticated – the process of selecting and breeding for growth, food quality and disease resistance traits. That plant is the Macadamia nut, and the main breeding program was conducted in Hawaii!

However, that is not to say that there hasn’t been a wide range of selection and cultivation of many Australian food plants over the 50,000 or so years of inhabitation of the continent. This fact has been widely communicated perhaps most vividly by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu.

The [project is] is being developed together with indigenous communities, so that the benefit of developing these products can be returned to the communities that first discovered and used these foods.

Australia as a continent generally has a pretty harsh climate, with long drought periods in many places. Plants growing in such environments need to take on a range of adaptations, including anti-herbivory traits. These features can mean that plants are poisonous, or at best unpalatable, to humans. To overcome these toxins or unpleasant flavours, many indigenous communities have developed sophisticated preparation methods, including washing for long periods or cooking in ash water, where the carbon binds up the toxins. In addition, a sophisticated knowledge of when and where to harvest the best native foods has been essential community knowledge passed down through generations.

But Australian bush foods still aren’t mainstream.

There have been several attempts over the decades to develop the native food industry. But with a variety of relatively underutilised tubers, grains, nuts and fruits, there remains much to explore.

A number of agencies, including the Australian Native Foods and Botanicals (ANFAB), research groups and communities have started to develop some of the 6,500 or so estimated edible plants. Fourteen species have been prioritised and received most attention, including; Anise myrtle, bush tomato, Davidson plum, desert lime, finger limes, Kakadu plum, lemon aspen, lemon myrtle, muntries, mountain pepper, quandong, riberry and wattle seed.

But apart from including some of these amazing flavours in ice creams (e.g. in the Daintree), it is still difficult to buy these products.

Davidson plum (ANFAB)

Perhaps the two biggest problems with mainstreaming native foods is that a discerning customer base, hungry for native flavours is still not fully developed, and the consistent and dependable large-scale supply of products remains problematic.

We’ve recently teamed up with The Orana Foundation, founded by award winning chef – Jock Zonfrillo – to help further develop the Australian native food industry. Jock runs the Orana restaurant (named last week by Gourmet Traveller as the top Australian restaurant), which specialises in creating a delicious degustation from Australian native and local ingredients. Over the last decade, Jock has travelled around Australia learning about native foods and their preparation from indigenous communities. He brings this knowledge vividly to life through his cooking.

finger limes (ANFAB)

I’ve eaten there and it’s a pretty amazing, even emotional, culinary journey through Australia. A typical evenings feast will include: damper on lemon myrtle with smoked macadamia butter and native thyme; Coorong mullet, lemon iron bark, Geraldton wax, native honey and green ants; Norther Territory buffalo milk, strawberry and eucalyptus.

The project in partnership with the Orana Foundation and supported by the South Australian Government (Primary Industry and Regions SA), is developing an indigenous food database to help share knowledge on our native foods.  In addition, to collating known records of food usage, the project will bring together information on the nutrient profile, culinary preparation and best horticultural practices for these products. The project aims to help make delicious dishes out of our native foods – to help cultivate and grow a discerning local and global customer base. The work will also support the horticultural industry for native foods, which is being developed together with indigenous communities, so that the benefit of developing these products can be returned to the communities that first developed these foods.

The project has quickly gathered momentum and in addition to involving a dozen of our top scientists, new partnerships are presenting themselves daily including the development of a new Cooperative Research Centre on Distinctive Australian Foods.

We look forward to building on the millennia of knowledge around native foods here in Australia, to bringing the unique flavours to the world and supporting the communities that are developing this growing and important industry.

Also here’s an interview I did on the project with Alice Keath featured on ABC Radio National.

Published by Prof Andy Lowe

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert in plants and trees, particularly the management of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – Land Degradation and Restoration report. He has helped secure a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research funding in his field and is an experienced and respected executive leader, board member, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy has been the Scientist in Residence at The Australian Financial Review since August 2018. Andy is inaugural Director of Agrifood and Wine at the University of Adelaide serving as the external face for food industry and government sector partnerships across Australia, and the world.

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