Biodiversity Conservation Food Innovation Plants

Kickstarting the Australian native food industry – PART 1

The story behind a slow uptake of indigenous foods production

Another year, another drought.

Australian farming continues to swing between famine and feast. Food production is still an important cornerstone of our economy and identity as a nation, which means that hardship for farmers brings political and financial action.

But is it time to fundamentally rethink what we are farming here in Australia, and to grow produce more in line with our climatic conditions?

Many people may not fully appreciate that almost all of the plants we grow as crops here in Australia are originally from other continents. Our food crops have been introduced as staples by successive waves of colonisation and introduction from all over the world.

In establishing the Australian primary production sector, we have fundamentally failed to harness the millennia of knowledge that exists around our native plants and animals, and largely ignored the crop potential of our Australian biota.

Australia’s climate, particularly in broadacre cropping and pastoral districts can be harsh, drought prone and nutrient poor. To get crops to grow in such regions requires selection and breeding for varieties that can tolerate, or better still thrive in these conditions. Crops originally from temperate regions, like wheat and canola, have been extensively selected so that they can cope with warmer, dryer condition. Crops from tropical or Mediterranean regions, which are more climatically similar to Australia, fare better with their innate adaptive capacity, but still suffer from environmental extremes and local disease infestations. Whilst new crops varieties are continuously being developed to incorporate adaptations, the problem is that many of these species simply don’t have the adaptive capacity to cope with the harshest Australian conditions in spite of how much breeding is done.

So why don’t we start from scratch with a new range of crops developed from Australian native plants?

We know that there has been some cultivation and selection of many Australian food plants over the last 50,000 or so years of inhabitation. This fact has perhaps been most widely and vividly communicated by Bruce Pascoe in books such as Dark Emu.

However the cropping potential and cultivation knowledge of these native plants was largely ignored by early settlers, and farmers instead chose familiar foods or ones for which large scale seed supply was available and/or cultivation methods well-known.

In establishing the Australian primary production sector, we have fundamentally failed to harness the millennia of knowledge that exists around our native plants and animals, and largely ignored the crop potential of our Australian biota.

Perhaps the only global success story is Australia’s macadamia nut, but the selection and breeding of this product was largely undertaken in Hawaii.

Of the 35,000 or so native plants here in Australia, some 1,500 to 4,500 have been used by indigenous communities as food. There are a range of underutilised tubers, grains, nuts and fruits, that could be developed as crops. In addition due to the harsh growing conditions in many regions, Australian plants naturally contain a range of bioactive compounds. These compounds allow the plants to thrive in the extreme Australian environments, but can also confer tremendous health benefits when consumed as foods or medicines. Examples are the Kakadu plum, which naturally contains over 100 times the vitamin C content of oranges, and some native Australian Leptospermum species which have more than 10 times the antibacterial activity levels of New Zealand plants that are normally used to produce manuka honey.

There have been several attempts over the decades to develop the Australian native food industry. Perhaps the only global success story is the macadamia nut, but the selection and breeding of this product was largely undertaken in Hawaii. Today we are in a situation where out of the world’s top 150 crop plants, none come from Australia.

At a grass roots level, there exists a healthy cottage industry around native foods across much of Australia, and a number of agencies, including Australian Native Foods and Botanicals (ANFAB), research groups and communities have started to develop some of the 1,500 or so estimated edible plants.

Fourteen species have been prioritised and received most development 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, and many would remain untouched on supermarket shelves if they were to make their way there due to unfamiliarity.

With so much potential and opportunity, what are the barriers to overcome to develop the native food industry in Australia?

Watch out for my blog post next week where I examine the top 4 issues of developing a native food industry, as well as potential solutions.

Feature image of Finger Limes is from the ANFAB website.

This blog post is part of a two part longer version of a feature article in the Australian Financial Review 

Info from recent HIA report into the market potential of natives (https://horticulture.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Hort_105325_Native-Foods-12pp_06-low-res-1.pdf) and ANFAB top native species list (https://anfab.org.au/main.asp?_=SPECIES)

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert on plants and trees, particularly the monitoring, management and utilisation of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered new species, lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime and has been responsible for securing multi-million dollar research funding. He is an experienced and respected executive leader, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy is the inaugural Director of Food Innovation at the University of Adelaide serving as the external face for all significant food industry and government sectors across South Australia, and the world.

1 comment on “Kickstarting the Australian native food industry – PART 1

  1. Pingback: Kickstarting the Australian native food industry – PART 2 – Prof Andy Lowe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: