Ancient grains bring future potential

19th January 2021 | Alison Turner

Indigenous Australians have been eating native plants and animals for an estimated 60,000-plus years, with thousands of bush tucker sources providing them with an abundance of meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, seeds and insects. But the use and availability of native Australian foods was drastically reduced by white colonisation, which introduced European farming systems and foods, restricted Indigenous Australians’ access to traditional lands and destroyed large amounts of native habitat. Incredibly, until the 1990s, the only native Australian food being cultivated commercially was the macadamia nut.

But with climate change and an exploding population creating a need for more sustainable food systems, experts are now looking to traditional Indigenous agricultural practices as a potential solution. Farming native foods would not only provide Australia with a more environmentally friendly way to produce nutritious food, it’s also a chance to celebrate a rich food culture that has long been overlooked and misunderstood, and could provide more Indigenous Australians with culturally sustainable economic opportunities.

A loaf of dancing grass bread from Black Duck Foods.

Making bread with dancing grass

Black Duck Foods is an Indigenous social enterprise founded by Indigenous author and native food expert Bruce Pascoe that is working to reengage people with traditional agricultural practices and create native Australian food systems. The goal is to use the business as a pathway for promoting economic development for Indigenous Australians.

“Black Duck Foods was created in response to a number of different factors,” says Black Duck Foods General Manager Chris Andrew. “One most glaring one is the fact that Indigenous Australians only see about one percent of the bush tucker revenue generated each year. We are keen to try and create systems where that value is better placed – and more equitably placed – back with First Nations people.”

Black Duck Foods predominantly farms native grasses such as mandadyan nalluk (dancing grass), but also native tubers such as the yam daisy or murnong, foods which come from Yuin country on NSW’s south coast. The business is working to find the most culturally, environmentally and economically viable ways to farm these foods so that others who come after them won’t have to start from scratch.

“We’ve gone through processes of food safety regulations; we’ve looked at harvesting, threshing, processing and milling techniques,” Andrew says. “We’re looking at the full farm-to-plate story, so we get a better handle on the industry and so we can ensure that at each point, there’s an opportunity for employment and enterprise for Indigenous Australians.”

University of Sydney researchers are exploring the viability of native millet from north-west NSW.

Sharing the knowledge

Black Duck Foods has recently been working with the University of Sydney Institute of Agriculture, consulting on a study that investigated the environmental, economic and cultural viability of farming native millet on Gamilaraay country in western NSW.

“Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay country in north-west NSW is one of the largest Aboriginal language groups in Australia, and they are proudly known as grass people,” says Dr Angela Pattison, study leader from the Institute of Agriculture Plant Breeding Institute at Narrabri.

“This region is now home to some of Australia’s best-quality agricultural land, and farmers here are major exporters of crops like cotton, wheat and pulses. However, the region historically produced native grains such as Mitchell grass and native millet, which were ground up and made into fire-roasted bread by traditional owners for thousands of years.”

Making johnnycakes with dhunbarr.

During the study, Dr Pattison consulted with the local Indigenous community to see how they felt about commercialising their native grains, known as dhunbarr in Gamilaraay.

“The feedback we got was overwhelmingly, ‘Yes, please, we need to bring these foods back’,” she says. “They were very keen, but there were a lot of questions about how they would bring them back, and how they would benefit from bringing them back. There was a general feeling that commercial viability sometimes passes them by.

“There were some cultural questions that they raised as well – if they share knowledge on which grains are edible, or how to cook them, what’s going to happen to that knowledge that they’ve developed over thousands of years? If somebody else then benefits from that knowledge, how does that work for them?”

Andrew explains that capturing the potential of native foods is often done at the cost of the people who hold the knowledge of that food story.

“One of the perennial issues is that we get a lot of interest from industry, but there is no reciprocity,” he says. “They’ll come, and it’s like, ‘How do we steal more knowledge?’

“It’s a testament to Australia, and our humanity, whether we continue to condone the theft of knowledge, to allow it to grow, or we stop and figure out how to equitably share this knowledge back with First Nations people.”

Saltbush blue butterfly larvae feed on native saltbush, the seeds and leaves of which can be used as food.

Saving the present with the past

Reintroducing native grasses could also lead to huge benefits for the land – providing food for native animals, birds and insects, as well as the microbes and worms that live in our soil.

“The main environmental benefit of bringing back native grains would be the biodiversity,” Dr Pattinson says. “But there are also climate change benefits such as soil carbon sequestration, and the benefits of growing perennials, rather than annuals, for cropping. The environmental benefits of having a plant living all year round are significant – for biodiversity, for water infiltration into the soil and keeping the soil temperature down, because you’ve got plants covering it all the time.”

Re-establishing our landscapes and reintroducing more native ingredients into Australian food systems definitely has enormous potential, but it’s not an overnight proposition. Apart from the logistics, much work needs to be done with Indigenous communities to ensure that they benefit from the use of their foods and their knowledge.

“But it’s not exclusive,” Andrews says. “It’s not just for them. The benefits are widespread to all of Australia. It’s not a First Nations-only story, it’s a First Nations story – a 60,000-plus-year-old culture – that we can all learn from and all benefit from. It’s gold.”