Demand surges for Australian bush foods

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 5th November 2008

A surge in global interest and demand for unusual and rare bush foods from Australian deserts is posing a challenge to the fledgling industry, estimated to be worth between $10-16 million dollars per annum.Demand is high for a range of desert foods such as wattle seed and in the case of bush tomato, which contributes to over half of the industry’s value, demand is currently outstripping supply.

The opportunity for the bush foods industry to build a sound value-chain reaching from the landscapes and people of the deserts into the world’s supermarkets will be one of the major issues canvassed at the Desert Knowledge Symposium in Alice Springs tomorrow.

“Demand for Australian bush foods is definitely rising, and this means the industry is now demand-driven rather than supply-driven,” noted Jenny Cleary, leader of the Desert Knowledge CRC’s Bush Products program. “If supply cannot meet demand we won’t have the investment into the industry that is required to help it grow.”

“This is an industry founded primarily on traditional Aboriginal knowledge about the collection, preparation and uses of desert plants and other foods – but so far there are not many Aboriginal commercial ventures operating successfully in the area. Our research aims to find out how to help them to participate.”

The bush foods industry needs to overcome a number of challenges before it can achieve its potential – including its fragmented nature, the small scale of many producers and participants, its lack of capital and the fact that most of its produce is from a highly variable wild harvest.

“In order to have more aboriginal participation we need to ensure development links very closely with aboriginal aspirations, where aboriginal people are consulted and part of the drive,” Ms Cleary said. “For example, we know of one group of women who only want to harvest, and another who want to be involved in horticulture.”

To help the process of deeper understanding of the value-chain, Ms Cleary recently took seven Aboriginal women on a tour of marketers, processors, retailers and restaurants in the big cities that are now scrambling to secure supplies of the desert’s unique culinary delights.

The seven women included four wild harvesters, two bush food experts and one commercial farmer of Australian bush tomatoes. Their tour of the bush foods post-harvest industry stretched from Pomona in Queensland to Melbourne.

When at the process plant, watching their bush tomato and wattleseed turn from raw product to the commercial product, one woman suggested, “We could have our picture on the jar”.

“It is those sorts of situations we want to provide, where desert people can make informed decisions to develop their industry,” Ms Cleary advised. “For this to happen there must be far stronger development of relationships along the chain, opportunities for Aboriginal communities to obtain appropriate market power, and a far better flow of information all along the chain from the consumer to the producer.”

Another issue is that desert foods are still regarded officially as ‘novel foods’- reflecting consumers’ lack of familiarity with them – but that is changing fast. “Bush foods are rapidly moving from ‘niche iconic’ to simply ‘iconic’ foods that people associate with health, naturalness and sustainability. The fact that they have secure and stable lines on the shelves of two leading supermarket chains shows how they are entering the mainstream of food.”

Bush foods also make increasing sense in a world in which deserts are growing larger under climate change, and water, crop land and nutrients becoming increasingly scarce, Ms Cleary suggests.

“But deserts are unpredictable places, where you can have a flood of produce one season, then little or nothing for years. Also many fruits, like the bush tomato, come in enormous variety even though they are in theory the same species – while many markets demand consistency of size, colour, and volume of produce. We have to help people understand that desert foods are different,” she said.

Ms Cleary feels the emerging bush foods industry will gradually develop two supply streams – commercial horticultural harvesting of bush produce on a regular basis in areas where water supplies are reliable, and the low volume wild harvesting of high-value produce sought by very discerning consumers.

In another historic development known as “Hands Across the Desert”, Aboriginal gatherers of the gabinj (Kadadu Plum) in Broome, WA, hosted bush tomato gleaners from the Alice Springs region. Common issues explored include handling of fruit, storage, pest management, quality control and assurance, and traceability with the aim of making their product saleable to as wide a market as possible, in preparation for the rising global interest in Australian bush foods.

“As I move around the desert I constantly hear how surprised people are to discover what is done with bush foods in different places. It quickly became obvious that sharing the lessons from across desert Australia could make the whole industry much stronger,” Ms Cleary concluded.

One of the DKCRC project’s main goals is to build a nationwide Aboriginal bush foods network and share all that knowledge, she says. This will also help address the challenges of jobs, income, health and social dislocation facing many remote communities.