INDIGENOUS BUSINESS SERIES: Bush tomato, Kakadu plum, desert lime – these are just some of the native bush foods that have been harvested by Indigenous Australians for thousands of generations. The historical knowledge about where native plants grow well, what they taste like and how they can be used in cooking is unique to Aboriginal society. 

And yet, despite the bush foods industry reliance on this knowledge, Indigenous Australians represent fewer than two per cent of providers across the supply chain. This isn’t due to a lack of ambition. Nearly 98 per cent of Aboriginal land owners aspire to be leaders in the native food industry, according to the First Nations Bushfood and Botanical Alliance Australia.

The demand for bush foods and related botanical products has been fuelled in recent years by the awareness of their health giving properties as well as their uptake by some of Australia’s celebrity chefs. Kylie Kwong, who combines Cantonese cooking with bush food ingredients, is one such advocate. 

“It’s a reflection of our country, there is nowhere else in the world where you can find these ingredients. In the last five years I’ve seen a real increase in restaurants and chefs and specialty food places offering native ingredients,” Kwong told the Daily Telegraph. 

Darwin-based Indigenous chef Zach Green talked about the link between food and culture when he said that “a lot of people forget that with food comes stories, comes connection to culture….Those wanting to experience Indigenous culture see it as a way forward for reconciliation.”

But that’s not sufficient for many Indigenous native bush food producers who want respect for First Nations knowledge values and protocols around bush foods and bush products to be enshrined in laws and business practice. Misappropriation and misuse of knowledge is common say many producers in that field.

Rayleen Brown has spent the past 20 years running her own bush foods business in Central Australia and is also the Northern Territory representative for the First Nations Bushfood and Botanical Alliance.

She says that: “The alliance is committed to righting the wrongs of the past and asserting our rights and interests as First Nations people in this country, over an industry that has been overtaken by non-Indigenous people and businesses.”

Alliance chair Tim McCartney believes the industry has been unregulated for too long without any real economic benefit for First Nations ownership. 

“We encourage all stakeholders to support the alliance to accelerate First Nation economic growth into a multi-million dollar Industry, he says. “Our solutions will be First Nations-led and we will expect to be at the front end of the industry, not the back.”

The native food and botanical Industry is made up of a wide-ranging group of people including wild-harvesters, growers, producers, processors, retailers, tourism operators, groups and individuals that harvest, process, value-add and sell multi-species fruit, leaf, tuber, oils, meat and fibre of Australian flora and fauna.

Produce comes from both wild harvest and orchards, and includes food, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products.

Small signs that the balance of power may be shifting come from several sources. 

New project to build infrastructure for bush foods

Firstly, a new project funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Australian Research Council, which has brought together University of Queensland academics and four Indigenous community groups to research and build the infrastructure needed to produce bush food plants.

Dale Chapman, an Indigenous chef and adjunct professor at UQ, is spearheading the project working alongside Melissa Fitzgerald, a professor of food science.

“The project is about empowering Indigenous communities to have more say about their businesses, to grow businesses in both bush foods and horticultural plants,” Fitzgerald told ABC Radio Brisbane.

“The thing about Australian native foods is that they’re adapted to grow in the Australian environment, so their environmental footprint is much smaller than imported foods that are grown here,” Fitzgerald says.

Importantly, the community groups will have autonomy over the intellectual property created so they can commercialise their project and certification will ensure that consumers know they are buying from Indigenous-run businesses.

And in another development, Indigenous representatives from the Kimberley Land Council, the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation and Indigenous entrepreneurs and investment groups teamed up with James Cook University and the CSIRO to identify challenges and opportunities for developing the traditional owner-led bush products sector across northern Australia.

The laws governing bio discovery

In terms of legal protections, however, it is the Queensland government that has been the first to move on the law governing “biodiscovery” and the rights of Indigenous people.

The Biodiscovery Act now conforms with the Nagoya Protocol on Biological Diversity, requiring anyone working in this field to form agreement with the custodians of Indigenous knowledge, including benefit-sharing arrangements.

The Queensland government is also currently drawing up a Traditional Knowledge Code of Practice in collaboration with Indigenous communities to ensure the biodiscovery industry works inclusively with traditional knowledge custodians.

Indigenous bush food producers such as Rayleen Brown will be hoping that this kind of initiative bears fruit in other states and territories.

This article is part of a series on Indigenous businesses and was produced with the support of the City of Sydney.

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