Bush Tucker is emerging out of the backblocks as a new glamour industry for Australia worth, potentially, hundreds of millions of export dollars.
Rising interest in, and demand for, Australian foods and flavours is behind a growing enthusiasm for bush tucker from remote indigenous communities to high-tech farms and supermarkets.
“I think that within a couple of decades native foods will be a major horticulture industry, like macadamias have already become,” predicts scientist Dr Maarten Ryder, whose team at the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre is developing the knowledge of how to grow, harvest and handle native foods.
The industry is already extremely diverse, ranging from wild harvest of plants by indigenous communities in the central deserts to cottage-scale horticultural production and processing, to trials by large-scale farmers of automated harvesting.
“It’s got all the making of a big industry, with a surprising array of products emerging on the market from liqueurs, aperitifs and teas, to sauces and chutneys, to fresh fruits and salad vegetables, to seeds and grains which add a new experience to breads and cakes,” Dr Ryder explains.
“There is tremendous interest from tourists in Australian native foods, most of which they have never encountered before in their lives, and this is reflected in rising demand for native products in our restaurants. Many of our supermarkets are starting to have an “Australian shelf” of native products.
“But we’re also seeing more and more recipe books appearing which call for Australian ingredients, and growing awareness and interest from the international gourmet community. A German spice company has recently expressed serious interest in acquiring new spices and condiments from Australia.”
Dr Ryder predicts that wild harvest will remain the industry mainstay for some time to come – a great economic opportunity for remote indigenous communities, both to gather and to make value-added products and ingredients, many of them with strong health attributes based on bush medicine.
From a consumer perspective, ‘wild food’ has the added attraction of being completely ‘natural’, and free from additives, farm chemicals or other processes.
However he notes that bush tucker is now being produced at a range of scales and intensities, including market-garden style operations, orchards of fruits like quandongs and even on the first experimental broad-acre enterprises involving crops like wattleseed, lemon myrtle and bush tomatoes.
Based on deep indigenous knowledge of the healing and health-giving properties of native plants, bush tucker has a tremendous opportunity to be part of the rapid worldwide growth in so-called “functional foods” – foods which have attributes that combat degenerative disorders such as diabetes, heart disease and cancers.
“For example lemon myrtle has antibacterial and anti-fungal attributes – I’ve used it myself for a sore throat. We’re also interested in potential benefits of fruits like bush tomatoes and muntries.”
However much remains to be learned about native plants – what their uses are and how to treat them. For this, Dr Ryder says, indigenous knowledge is likely to be a great help, and having good partnerships with Indigenous people will be essential.
Research is also needed into domesticating native plants for agriculture – knowledge of their soil, nutrient and water requirements is still sparse.
“We need to be careful not to create a demand for native produce which the industry cannot meet. We also need to look carefully at the market trends – where the demand is coming from and what it’s for – and also find ways to overcome any blockages in the supply chain, so we don’t disappoint customers.”
In one area alone is the enthusiasm for Australian foods slow to take off – most Aussie homes still have few in the pantry or on the shopping list. But Dr Ryder feels that the rising international interest will be more than sufficient to keep the bush foods industry on a strong growth curve for years to come.
Dr Maarten Ryder, Desert Knowledge CRC and CSIRO, 08 8303 8534 or 0409 69 360
Maarten.Ryder@csiro.au Dr Craig James, Desert Knowledge CRC and CSIRO, 08 8950 7157 or 0408 838 194
Craig.James@csiro.au Katie Vargo, Desert Knowledge CRC, 08 8950 7122 or 0428 102 935
Katie.Vargo@csiro.au Elke Wiesmann, Desert Knowledge CRC, 08 8950 7142 or 0427 009 240 Elke.Wiesmann@csiro.au