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Image: Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

‘Here – try this.’

Aunty Fran Bodkin smiles as she hands me a freshly-picked fruit which resembles a kumquat. The only thing that’s different is the deep purple colour of the skin. I peel it and place the flesh whole in my mouth. As I chew, hundreds of tiny sacs pop and release a delicious citrus juice. ‘Native lime,’ she says, as she hands me another to enjoy.

Aunty Fran is a descendant of the Dharawal people of the Bidiagal clan and an esteemed botanist. She is showing me around the Australian Botanical Gardens at Yandel’ora, alternatively known as Mount Annan, in western Sydney. She knows the gardens well; she helped found them back in the 1980s.

It’s a sunny winter morning, the air clear and crisp, and birds sing to each other in the trees. Aunty Fran continues walking. She stops regularly to share more of her vast knowledge about the native food plants that we pass: Tetragonia tetragonoides (warrigal greens), Dianella caerulea (blue-flax lily), Prostanthera ovalifolia (mint bush), Einadia hastata (berry saltbush), Carpobrotus glaucescens (pigface), and Commelina cyanea (scurvy weed).

These and many other native foods have been central to Aunty Fran’s diet ever since she was a young girl. Her Mum and Nan imbued in her a love of the natural world and taught her which plants and fruits were edible, and how the different plant communities they are found in affect their growth and flavour. She used this knowledge to survive when she was stolen from her family, ran away from her white foster carers, and lived off the land as she made her way back home. This happened twelve times.

These days Aunty Fran still primarily eats native foods. As well as being enormously culturally significant for her, she cites another, more practical reason: ‘I just prefer the taste of the Australian bush.’ She harvests many plants and fruits from her own property and the bushland surrounding it, making sure to never take more than half of what’s available. The sandpaper fig is one of her favourites, but she knows never to eat more than three at a time. ‘Otherwise you’ll be sitting on the toilet for a long time,’ she laughs.

‘Up until now, native plants have been seen as a nuisance. But if everybody starts using them, maybe they’ll start to value them.’

More and more non-Aboriginal people in Australia and around the world are starting to develop a taste for the Australian bush. In fact, the native food industry has boomed in recent years – so much so that many suppliers are unable to keep up with demand. Estimates put the value of the industry at approximately $20 million (excluding macadamia, which alone is a $200 million industry). Over 15 native species have already been commercially developed – largely thanks to the vast Aboriginal knowledge about them – and some are being hailed as global superfoods. A recent headline in The Conversation, for example, read, ‘Meet the Kakadu plum: An international superfood thousands of years in the making’, while another on the ABC declared, ‘Quandong – the versatile outback superfood that can cure a toothache’.

But Aunty Fran is neither worried nor excited about the growing public appetite for native foods. Bluntly, she says she has only one thought about it: ‘About bloody time.’

‘Because I think that’s the way our bushland is going to survive,’ she continues. ‘Up until now, native plants have been seen as a nuisance. But if everybody starts using them, maybe they’ll start to value them.’

*

Across the Australian continent there are an estimated 6,000 edible plants, 2,000 truffles or subterranean mushrooms, numerous game birds, mammals and marsupials, and a plethora of seafood. These foods sustained and were maintained by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years prior to European invasion in 1788.

The foods that were available pre-invasion differed across the continent, but the variety was generally very high. As John Newton writes in The Oldest Foods on Earth: A History of Australian Native Foods:

In the Western Desert, the Aboriginal people chose from a seasonal menu of 150 different foods a year. In the tropical north, that figure jumps to 750 a year… By contrast, the average European Australian today will choose from between fifty and a hundred foods a year, while largely ignoring even the (European imposed) seasonality of food.

Early European arrivals brought their own crops and stock to plant and run across the new land they found themselves in. Many were disgusted by and dismissive of the native foods available – but others, either out of necessity, curiosity or a sense of culinary adventure, were more willing to experiment. Describing life in the early days of the colony, First Fleet diarist Watkin Tench wrote in 1789 that ‘a few wild fruits are sometimes procured’, including a ‘small purple apple’ and ‘a fruit which has the appearance of a grape, though in taste more like a green gooseberry,’. He said emu meat ‘tasted like beef’ and the meat of a young kangaroo ‘eats tender and well flavoured, tasting like veal’.

Finger limes. Image: Jon Fisher, Flickr (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

Throughout the nineteenth century a selection of native foods were exported and introduced to Britain for consumption and cultivation, and some European Australian cookbook writers enthused about native ingredients and included them in their recipes.

Mina Rawson was one. She lived in Boonooroo on Butchulla country in Queensland, and in 1895 published the Antipodean Cookery Book and Kitchen Companion with the aim of meeting ‘the wants and circumstances of those living in the far Bush’ – referring, in this case, specifically to white women. She praised the flavour of witchetty grubs, comparing them favourably to oysters; the book included recipes for fried eel, stewed parrots, jugged wallaby, rosella jam, and rosella pickles, and recommended using native vegetables as substitutes for more familiar ones.

She may have been, in her own words, ‘beholden’ to Aboriginal people for ‘nearly all’ of her knowledge about edible flora and fauna, but Rawson still firmly believed in white sovereignty over the land and white racial superiority over its Traditional Owners. Author Shannon Woodcock has observed that ‘animal lives were valuable to her only insofar as they could be used for her profit’ and ‘Aboriginal people themselves were rendered invisible in the prescribed processes of food preparation.’ In Rawson’s memoirs, serialised in a local newspaper between 1919 and 1926, she even wrote proudly about shooting at and whipping Aboriginal people, whom she described as a ‘deadly menace’, ‘great thieves’ and ‘lawless people…not to be judged by any known standards.’

Even though some Europeans undoubtedly consumed and experimented with native foods in this early colonial period, they were still heavily stigmatised within white society, representing, according to author and food historian Colin Bannerman, ‘failure: depletion of store, extreme poverty, or separation from the society of “home”.’

Over time, as colonisation intensified and European-style agriculture and infrastructure expanded, Aboriginal cultures and foodways were further devastated and even fewer non-Aboriginal Australians ate or were interested in native foods. By the mid-twentieth century they had, Bannerman writes, ‘virtually disappeared from cookery books and… from most tables.’

But a shift came in the 1980s and 1990s when a small number of Australian chefs turned to native ingredients in an attempt to construct a more ‘authentic’ national cuisine that wasn’t just built around a spreadable yeast extract or mincemeat-filled puff pastry. Around the same time, the ABC helped mainstream native foods with its series Bush Tucker Man, fronted by Les Hiddins, who took viewers on a (white) journey around Australia, promoting the many foods that could be sourced from the land.

Since then, word has continued to spread about the unique flavours and huge health benefits of native Australian foods. For example, kangaroo meat – which could only be legally sold as pet food in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria until 1993 – has only 2 per cent fat and a high concentration of conjugated linoleic acid and omega 3. A 2009 study of thirteen native herbs, spices and fruit found they ‘exhibited superior antioxidant capacity as compared to the Blueberry standard, renowned worldwide as the “health-promoting fruit”‘, and contained very high levels of vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin B, magnesium, zinc and calcium.

A key moment in the recent boom of the native food industry came in 2016 when award-winning – and trend-setting – chef Rene Redzepi opened a 10-week Sydney pop-up of his acclaimed Danish restaurant, Noma, to showcase native Australian ingredients. On the menu were dishes like green macadamia nuts in a chilled broth, native berries dusted with Kakadu plum, and abalone schnitzel served with bunya nuts, finger lime, sea grape and mat rush. Diners forked out $485 for the meal. All tables were sold out just minutes after bookings were opened, with the waiting list exceeding 27,000 people.

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John Lethlean, food writer for The Australian, described Redzepi’s venture as ‘an important milestone in Australia’s self-discovery as a food nation’. This has proved true, with demand for native Australian ingredients among both chefs and everyday consumers soaring ever since.

But it is a sad irony that it took a European chef opening a restaurant in Sydney for non-Aboriginal Australia to start to seriously value the foods of the oldest continuing cultures on earth.

*

‘At the moment the bush food industry is massive, but when you look at how much money funnels back into Aboriginal communities and benefits Aboriginal people, it’s just such a small percentage that it’s fucking laughable,’ Clarence Slockee says.

A Bundjalung man from northern New South Wales, Slockee is sitting in a small room overlooking Yerrabingin, Australia’s first native rooftop farm located in the inner Sydney suburb of Eveleigh. According to an ongoing research project by Bushfood Sensations, an alliance of businesses that promote Aboriginal foods, only 1 per cent of the native food dollar value is currently generated by Aboriginal people, whose vast, ancient ecological knowledge makes the industry viable in the first place.

Slocklee and Christian Hampson founded Yerrabingin, which is entirely Aboriginal owned and run, partly to address this issue of Aboriginal underrepresentation and marginalisation in the industry. Less than a year old, the 500-square-metre farm – which supplies local restaurants and bars, and doubles as a community space hosting workshops on bush foods, permaculture, weaving and art – contains over 2,000 plants from 34 species, carefully chosen for their cultural significance for staff as well as their ability to withstand the harsh, windy rooftop conditions. Most are suitable for human consumption, including finger limes, native raspberries, warrigal greens, midgen berries and muntries, but Yerrabingin’s permaculturalist and project manager Matthew McKay insists that even those that are not are still food for the insects that are essential to the farm’s ongoing survival. ‘We’ve got to invite the pollinators in,’ he says.

Only 1 per cent of the native food dollar value is currently generated by Aboriginal people, whose vast, ancient ecological knowledge makes the industry viable in the first place.

Along with Yerrabingin, there is a growing number of other Aboriginal-owned-and-run organisations, cooperatives and businesses including Maningrida Wild Foods (NT) and IndigiGrow (NSW) which are striving to lift the number of Aboriginal people involved in and benefiting from the native food industry. But there are other industry-wide issues impacting Aboriginal peoples’ interests, cultures, and rights that concern Slockee just as much – in particular, the demand-saturated state of the current market.

Although demand shows no sign of decreasing – especially given the ‘superfood’ status attached to many native foods – supply is severely limited because so much of the total amount of native produce is currently wild-harvested. This is largely why native foods are so expensive: even commercially-produced finger limes, for example, can sell for between $40 and $45 per kilogram.

This means that while a wealthy few get to enjoy new gourmet meals, many Aboriginal people, if not in a position to wild-harvest themselves, simply cannot afford to buy their traditional foods. It also means that there is a strong economic incentive for disadvantaged Aboriginal communities involved in wild harvesting to sell more and consume less of their traditional foods – which, Slockee says, ‘is happening right now in our communities and is completely changing people’s diets’ – and a growing risk of a native food black market. Indeed, in 2016 approximately 600 kilograms of gabinge (or Kakadu plum) worth $12,000 was stolen from the Milari Aboriginal Corporation in Broome. Slockee has heard other stories of trees being illegally destroyed so people can quickly harvest the lucrative fruit to sell and avoid getting caught. ‘If that’s happening,’ he says, ‘it’s fucking heartbreaking, because some of those trees are 50, 100 years old.’

Yerrabingin rooftop farm in Sydney. Image: Facebook/Yerrabingin

Equally concerning is the fact that the rich Aboriginal heritage intertwined with native foods isn’t being properly recognised – and in some instances, Aboriginal ecological knowledge is even being stolen by non-Aboriginal people for huge commercial gain.

One illustrative case involves a plant known as Gumby Gumby which, in the language of the Ghungalu people from central Queensland, means ‘woman woman medicine’. Known in Western science as Pittosporum phillyraeoides, it has been used by Aboriginal people across the continent for millennia to treat a range of illnesses.

In 2006, German-born Yeppoon-based couple Katja Amato and Klaus-Otto Von Gliszczynski established their business, GumbyGumby.com, which sells a range of products derived from the plant. According to their website, in 1999 an Aboriginal elder they met wrote the name of the tree in dust as ‘Cumpi Cumpi’. They claim they then ‘invented’ the word ‘Gumby Gumby’.

In 2008, the couple applied for and were granted a patent over the exclusive production of leaf extracts of Pittosporum phillyraeoides and its use in medicine. They then proceeded to send cease-and-desist letters to Aboriginal-owned businesses that also traded in Gumby Gumby-based products. More recently, they applied for an exclusive trademark over the name ‘Gumby Gumby’. A final decision on this application is imminent.

Lee Doherty, a Palawa woman who runs a business called Bushfoods With Benefits, which also sells products derived from Gumby Gumby, was one of those who received a cease-and-desist letter from Amato and Von Gliszczynski. She fought back and has been able to continue operating, but tells me she is ‘appalled’ by the recent trademark application.

‘It’s cultural appropriation, plain and simple,’ she says. ‘No one should be able to trademark an Indigenous word. Enough has been taken away from First Nations people in Australia. Now they’re trying to take our language.’

*

So, what to do?

Some attempts are already being made to improve the situation.

In 2001, supermarket giant Coles established the Indigenous Food Fund to help support the growth of Aboriginal businesses involved in the supply of native foods. As of 2016, the fund had contributed $2 million to Aboriginal communities and enterprises across Australia. (For comparison, the supermarket generated $1.86 billion in earnings in 2016 alone.)

The Orana Foundation has a similar mission. Founded by Jock Zonfrillo, the owner and chef of the famed Adelaide restaurant, Orana, it seeks to not only help Aboriginal communities research, commercialise, and promote their traditional foods but also to alleviate social and economic disadvantage through skills training and employment opportunities. In 2017, the Foundation entered into a research partnership with the South Australian government as part of a $1.25 million grant to directly consult with Aboriginal communities and study and document traditional food practices.

These are positive developments. But alone they are not enough to fix the pervasive problems within the industry. In order to build an ethical, sustainable industry which has Aboriginal interests and self-determination at its core, far more systemic changes are required.

In order to build an ethical, sustainable industry which has Aboriginal interests and self-determination at its core, far more systemic changes are required.

A good first step would be for the Australian government to ratify the Nagoya Protocol, which it signed in January 2012. A supplementary agreement to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, its objective is to ensure ‘the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources.’ It specifically stipulates that genetic knowledge held by Indigenous communities is accessed with their ‘prior and informed consent or approval and involvement, and that mutually agreed terms have been established.’ The protocol also requires that those wanting to use Indigenous-owned genetic resources must consider customary laws, community protocols and procedures, and ensure ‘the fair and equitable sharing of benefits’ from using traditional knowledge.

According to Terri Janke, a Wuthathi and Meriam woman from Cairns and an expert on Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, ‘for Indigenous Australians, the Protocol opens the door for access and benefit sharing arrangements by requiring prior informed consent when Indigenous resources are being utilised.’

Part of the ratification process might involve introducing new legislation that gives specific protection to Aboriginal ecological knowledge, and decolonising Australia’s existing intellectual property laws. As it stands, the existing legal framework makes it possible – as the Gumby Gumby controversy sadly demonstrates – for any Australian individual or company, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, to be granted exclusive rights to Aboriginal products or language. This issue was also highlighted earlier this year when it was revealed that non-Indigenous company WAM Clothing holds worldwide exclusive rights to the Aboriginal flag and has issued infringement notices to numerous Aboriginal companies and not-for-profit organisations that use it.

The existing legal framework also prioritises documented, individual knowledge and ideas. As Janke says: ‘Given that Indigenous Knowledge is often orally transferred, and may be nurtured and handed down through many generations, it may not meet the requirements of copyright protection.’

Slockee would also like to see Australian governments follow the lead of The Orana Foundation and Coles’ Indigenous Food Fund and ‘help Aboriginal communities in developing a much better way forward in commercialising particular species.’ This would, he believes, ‘shrink the wild harvest and take some of the current heat out of the market.’

But change at a legislative and government level can be difficult, complex, and delayed. With this in mind, in 2011 the Merne Altyerre-ipenhe (Food from the Creation time) Reference Group, alongside Josie Douglas and Fiona Walsh, published a set of voluntary ethical guidelines for bush foods researchers, enterprise leaders, workers and professionals. Among other matters, they relate to the fair and equitable benefits for Aboriginal people, increased participation throughout the supply chain of Aboriginal people, and restoring country, ecology and bush food species through natural and cultural resource management and landcare.

If followed, these guidelines would likely help to create an industry – and, to a lesser extent, a country – that is fairer, more equitable, and more inclusive of Aboriginal people.

But us individual eaters – especially non-Aboriginal ones – can also help by following two simple steps.

Firstly: Buy native foods, and when doing so, support businesses that are run by and benefit Aboriginal people.

Secondly: when eating native foods, don’t just admire their delicious flavours and nutritional benefits.

Remember their history, remember the history of who they belong to.

Remember they are imbued not just with tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal knowledge, spirituality and cultural heritage, but also the racism, frontier violence, theft of land and children, and massacres that have defined this continent’s more recent past.

As Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian author Bruce Pascoe has said: ‘You can’t eat our food if you can’t swallow our history.’