The demand for native food in Australia continues to outstrip supply, but only a small percentage of people in the industry are actually Indigenous.
- Indigenous participation in the bush food sector was as low as 1 per cent in 2018
- Racism may be affecting attitudes to bush food, but demand is growing
- Indigenous groups want to protect cultural knowledge and share the profits locally
Some feel that racism and mistrust have limited demand, Indigenous participation and the sharing of knowledge, but could all that be about to change?
This is an important time for Aboriginal people to be involved in the bush food industry, according to Arakwal woman Delta Kay.
She is from the Bundjalung Nation in northern New South Wales, and she wants her community to work towards being distributors of native foods.
“They’re part of our DNA. So, I do feel that we’re being left behind when we’re not part of the narrative.”
Industry leader Rebecca Barnes can see the potential for Indigenous food to be part of the reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, and modern methods of farming can be intertwined with those traditional ways of growing and using, but it is being held back.
Change is coming
A 2018 survey conducted by Indigenous alliance Bushfoods Sensation found that only 1 per cent of those in the native food industry were Indigenous.
Ms Barnes believed the Indigenous participation rate had grown since then, with a number of new businesses starting.
“I would like to think we’re edging towards maybe 10 per cent, that might be a little bit too high but there certainly is a lot more involvement now,” she said.
Her own business Playing with Fire Native Foods has formed a number of Indigenous partnerships since it started in 2002.
“Indigenous people are getting a stronger voice and finding their leadership and standing up saying, ‘Well hang on a minute, this is our culture and we need to be part of it.'”
Ms Barnes said that provenance was also an important part of the native food story.
“It’s not just about the flavours or the nutritional benefits of the food, it’s the cultural background, the storytelling, the uses,” she said.
“They use the barks, they use the leaves, they use the fruit, they use the flowers, they use the roots, they use everything of a plant.
“We haven’t got to that stage. We just pick the fruit or pick the leaves. So, we’ve got a lot to learn.”
Indigenous restaurant opens in Byron Bay
Bundjalung Widjabul Wia-bul woman Mindy Woods has a passion for native foods that led her to establish her restaurant Karkalla in 2020.
“I really wanted to connect with culture myself, and I wanted to connect Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with our incredible culture as well, and what a great way to do it over food,” she said.
Karkalla uses as many local native ingredients as possible, from lemon aspen and line-caught fish to Davidson plums and pippis, but Ms Woods said while it was a priority to source from Indigenous suppliers and growers, it was often a challenge.
“When I can’t source it, I’m going to reach out to any mob that’s doing it because we need this food.
“We need to get it out of restaurants and into people’s homes, so the more that we grow it, the more that we embrace it, the better it is for everyone,” she said.
Ms Woods said the conversation on Indigenous involvement and ownership in the native foods sector was long overdue.
“I think people are really scared, to be honest, and I understand, there’s been a lot of mistrust and a lot of the narrative’s been really negative between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in the past, but now’s the time to change,” she said.
Use food to connect
Mindy Woods is encouraging people to connect with each other through food.
“Just reach out say ‘G’day’, welcome us onto your properties and into your businesses so we can learn about what you’re doing, and you can learn from us.”
“Learn the creation stories of your area, understand the history of the area that is now your country as well, understand the native food landscapes that existed here traditionally and understand our connection and our story to them.
Incredible range of food
Native foods, including coastal succulents, herbs, and greens, are being sold into Sydney and Brisbane markets and locally to chefs and restaurants by Leon Reynolds from hydroponic grower Pocket Herbs at Burringbar in the Tweed Valley.
“We have the Barilla Salt Bush, the Old Man Salt Bush, the Karkalla, River mint, samphire, the sea blite, warrigal greens,” he said.
“It’s seasonal so it goes to seed, Karkalla. We’ve got a good supply of it year-round and then saltbush is slow-growing, so a lot of it is us trying to educate ourselves on how to grow this so we can consistently supply the market.”
The demand for native foods is growing in the alcohol sector as well, with independent distilleries across the country seeking out native plants to infuse in their spirits.
Cape Byron Distillery uses a range of native ingredients, including Davidson plums, macadamias, wattle seed and native raspberries.
The distillery buys around 16 tonnes of Davidson plums a year for its popular Slow Gin.
Chief executive Eddie Brook said they were looking at creating opportunities for Indigenous involvement and ownership.
“Our goal would be to work with private landholders on some land use agreements for Indigenous ownership and management of those crops, or for the Indigenous-owned land to get that commercial opportunity through them growing,” he said.
Communal knowledge and a ‘black tax’
Bringing Indigenous food into commercial production has meant the sharing of a great deal of traditional knowledge, and Indigenous groups have been working on ways of protecting that.
Minyunbal woman Arabella Douglas is a traditional owner who runs an Indigenous training and education business called Currie Country.
She has teamed up with Pocket Herbs to release a range of native foods.
“I was very happy to impart Aboriginal knowledge to the systems of food and how to how to grow food, what the uses were, how to inform chefs, but I was not prepared just to hand that information over, ” Ms Douglas said.
Leon Reynolds, from Pocket Herbs, thinks Indigenous owners’ native rights to forage on country should be recognised.
“We feel it’s necessary to be able to sell it and also for the cultural side with the growing practices, [to know] where it grows, where it’s from,” he said.
“It’s probably better from a chef’s point of view as well so that when they have a customer come in they’re providing an experience and not just a product and a plate of food.”
Aboriginal principles behind a ‘black tax’
Arabella Douglas is happy to work with the Reynolds family to protect Indigenous cultural knowledge.
“This is our own traditional country. It seemed a sensible fit for us to own the intellectual property in relation to native foods going to market,” Ms Douglas said.
“People were wanting to have native foods and we needed to devise a way that we could actually bring them to market for the general consumer in a way that was consistent but also had Aboriginal principles sitting behind it.
“That is knowledge about the food, the food system itself, the land system and also the other component, of course, is that we pay a “black tax” wherever we distribute.
The funds produced from the relationship with Pocket Herbs goes back to an organisation called the Currie Foundation.
“So that serves all of the family, about 3,000 people, and the reason it’s framed that way is that the intellectual knowledge that we talk about is gleaned from all of our family lines it doesn’t just belong to me, it’s communal knowledge,” she said.
Ms Douglas believed that the number of Indigenous producers is growing but she is keen to see the sector develop in a particular way.
“My family’s objective is not to dominate a market, it’s actually to sustain the people that live in this environment,” she said.
“So, for me, the Nirvana would be if everybody in the Tweed Byron and the Gold Coast eats native foods that are from their own region, not start to import bush bananas and other things from other regions and other nations, that’s not what we’re aiming for as a family.”