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August 22, 2022

Australia’s bush food industry is expected to increase tenfold over the next few years, but there are concerns Aboriginal Australians won’t be the ones to reap the benefits or lead the way.

Key points:

  • As demand grows for bush foods, there are calls for more to be done to stop the exploitation of culture and knowledge
  • Industry research shows less than two per cent of bush food product comes from Aboriginal people
  • Costs and access to land are also issues hindering Aboriginal involvement

The rapidly growing native foods and botanicals industry is thought to be worth up to $50 million a year, with foods like wattle seeds, lemon myrtle, sandalwood, bush tomato and the Kakadu plum popular among chefs.

However, industry research has suggested less than two per cent of the product comes from Aboriginal people, which Noongar Land Enterprise Group chief executive Alan Beattie said was a worrying trend.

Mr Beattie said the fear of having Aboriginal knowledge, culture or products used by others was turning Aboriginal people away from the industry.

“It’s very challenging for the First Nations people to participate in the industry when they’ve got this real fear of being exploited,” he said.

Alan beattie and oral mcguire with wattle seed

Mr Beattie (L) and business consultant Oral McGuire are pushing for more Aboriginal involvement in the bush food industry.(Supplied: Jesse Collins)

The Noongar Land Enterprise Group has called on the federal government to put legislation in place to help.

“There’s no comprehensive legislation, such as there is in other countries, to protect the rights and cultural knowledge of the Aboriginal people,” he said

Mr Beattie said Aboriginal people needed to be consulted and listened to.

“At the moment what happens is First Nations people have those conversations and that knowledge is then used by non-First Nations people with no benefit flowing back to the knowledge holder.” 

He said it was not just about the money, but also about protecting culture.

Earlier this year, a Margaret River distillery was criticised for using the “essence” of a tree sacred to Noongar people to make gin.

Hands holding wattle seed

Demand is growing for bush foods like wattle seed.(Supplied: Jesse Collins.)

Aboriginal business consultant Oral McGuire said it was worrying to see non-Indigenous companies dominating the industry.

“We have seen all sorts of products be exploited by the big perfume industries in France,” he said

“We know there’s thousands of native species — plants and animals and other products — and so from those thousands of products that could be developed.

“There’s no way that we’re going to be allowing it to be exploited.” 

Muffins made from kwandongs and kakadu plums

Aboriginal bush foods like kwandongs and Kakadu plums are popular with chefs.(ABC News: Jacqueline Lynch)

The Noongar Land Enterprise Group is seeking funding to set up Australia’s first Aboriginal Bush Produce Innovation and Manufacturing Hub at Avondale Farm, east of Perth.

Cost a big issue

Nyul Nyul man Robert Dann sells products made from boab powder and the Kimberley gubinge, also known as the Kakadu plum.

He echoed concerns about protecting the rights of Aboriginal people.

However, he said the biggest barrier for new players in the bush food industry was the cost.

“The biggest thing is finance – as a young male who actually started off his business just on a shoe-string budget, the biggest thing I found was that you have got to have a lot of money backing you up,” Mr Dann said.

“It’s very, very costly.”

Bindam mie business owner robert dann standing in front of a boab tree in broome.

Mr Dann says the cost of running a business is a big deterrent for new players.(ABC Kimberley: Moataz Hamde)

He said because many Aboriginal bush foods weren’t yet widely available, there were extra costs associated with getting them approved for commercial sale.

“They haven’t got all the properties like banana and apple, we’ve got a totally different fruit and we have to get that analysed to tell us the properties as a fruit,” Mr Dann said.

“It cost me $1,500 just to get the analysis of the boab powder.”

‘Not enough of us doing it’

Wongi woman Teena Forrest runs a catering business using a number of bush foods, including pig face, kwandongs, Kakadu plums and bush tomatoes.

She said she was keen to see the industry expand.

“There’s not enough of us out there doing it,” she said

Teena forrest in front of a catering table

Teena Forrest says Aboriginal people shouldn’t have to get a licence to harvest wild bush food.(ABC News Jacqueline Lynch)

Ms Forrest said she would like to see Aboriginal people put in charge of what they were taking from their land, rather than businesses having to seek permits from the state authorities to harvest food for commercial use on public land.

“If we have native title and we have our own land that we’re able to forage from, we should actually be exempt from those licences,” she said.

“We should be able to benefit and profit and make a good living from it.”

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