Australia’s bush-food industry is set to grow tenfold over the next few years, but there are fears that Aboriginal Australians will not be the ones to reap the benefits or lead the way.
- As demand for bush foods increases, there are calls to do more to stop the exploitation of culture and knowledge
- Industry research shows that less than 2% of bush foods are indigenous
- Costs and access to land are also issues that impede Indigenous participation
The rapidly growing native food and plant industry is thought to be worth up to $50 million a year, with foods like acacia seeds, lemon myrtle, sandalwood, bush tomato and Kakadu plum popular among chefs.
However, industry-led research suggests that less than 2% of the product comes from Aboriginal people, which Noongar Land Enterprise Group Managing Director Alan Beattie says is a worrying trend.
Beattie said the fear of seeing Indigenous knowledge, culture or products used by others is turning Indigenous people away from the industry.
“It’s very difficult for First Nations people to participate in the industry when they have this real fear of being exploited,” he said.
The Noongar Land Enterprise Group has called on the federal government to put in place legislation to help.
“There is no comprehensive legislation, like there is in other countries, to protect the rights and cultural knowledge of indigenous peoples,” he said.
Mr. Beattie said Indigenous peoples must be consulted and listened to.
“At the moment what’s happening is that First Nations people are having these conversations and the knowledge is then being used by non-Indigenous people with no benefit going to the knowledge holder.”
He said it was not only about money, but also about protecting culture.
Earlier this year, a Margaret River distillery was criticized for using the “essence” of a tree sacred to the Noongar people to make gin.
Indigenous business consultant Oral McGuire said it was concerning to see non-Indigenous businesses dominating the industry.
“We have seen all kinds of products being exploited by the major perfume industries in France,” he said.
“We know that there are thousands of native species – plants, animals and other products – and therefore these thousands of products that could be developed.
“There’s no way we’re allowing it to be exploited.”
The Noongar Land Enterprise Group is seeking funding to set up Australia’s first Aboriginal bush products manufacturing and innovation center at Avondale Farm, east of Perth.
Cost a big deal
Nyul Nyul’s man, Robert Dann, sells powdered products made from Kimberley boab and gubinge, also known as Kakadu plum.
He echoed concerns about protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.
However, he said cost was the biggest hurdle for new entrants into the bushfood industry.
“The most important thing is finance – as a young man who started his business on a shoestring budget, the most important thing I’ve found is that you need to have lots of money to support you,” said said Mr. Dann.
“It’s very, very expensive.”
He said that since many indigenous bush foods were not yet widely available, there were additional costs associated with approving them for commercial sale.
“They don’t have all the properties like the banana and the apple, we have a totally different fruit and we need to have it analyzed to tell us the properties as a fruit,” Dann said.
“It cost me $1,500 just to get the boab powder analysis.”
“Not enough of us are doing it”
Wongi wife Teena Forrest runs a catering business using a number of bush foods including pork face, kwandongs, Kakadu plums and bush tomatoes.
She said she was looking forward to seeing the industry grow.
“Not enough of us are doing it,” she said.
Ms Forrest said she would like to see Aboriginal people responsible for what they take from their land, rather than companies having to seek permits from state authorities to harvest food for commercial purposes on public land.
“If we have aboriginal title and we have our own land that we can feed ourselves on, we should actually be exempt from those licenses,” she said.
“We should be able to enjoy it and benefit from it and live well from it.”