Cash Commodities or Cultural Icons? The two-world story of Australian bushfoods

Ahead of AGRIFOOD XXI, Dr Jen Cleary from the University of South Australia takes a look at some of the big issues surrounding Australian bushfoods.

Roo steaks with bush tomato chutney served on a bed of lemon myrtle quinoa, followed by desert lime cheesecake and wattleseed ice cream. How wonderful if one day, such a menu might be the norm, rather than the novelty it is today.

Australian bush foods – plentiful and climatically adapted to Australian conditions – what could be better? So why aren’t we eating more of them? There’s an industry in place and these days, you can buy bush food products in the aisles and fridges at several large supermarkets.

Perhaps it is about perception. For many of we non-indigenous Australians, and certainly for those of us from British and European stock, there’s been an inherent fear and ignorance of the value of what grows naturally in our landscapes. We are far more comfortable with fields of wheat and barley, and chooks, cows, pigs and sheep – because that’s what our ancestors knew. They saw the Australian bush as largely foreign and worthless and certainly with nothing worth eating and razed it as quickly as they could to plant the comfortingly familiar. It is quite telling in fact, that the largest consumer group for roo meat in Australia for example, is our four-legged friends!

Another challenge for the bush foods industry – which has been in operation now for around 30-40 years – is continuity of supply. A significant number of bush foods, like bush tomatoes and wattleseed, are still sourced mainly from the wild. For these two desert species at least, that usually means harvesting by remote Aboriginal peoples in central Australia where bush harvest has been occurring for thousands of years. Indeed, the knowledge we have of what can be eaten and how to eat it in this region has largely been built upon traditional ecological knowledge generously shared by desert peoples. Because the bulk of supply comes from the wild, it is subject to the vagaries of seasonal conditions – some years plentiful and in others almost non-existent.

There are other challenges for the industry too. For remote Aboriginal peoples, harvesting food to sell might not be the primary reason they are doing it. Harvesting bush foods is part of a wider cosmological purview that encompasses a living and subjective relationship with ‘country.’ Caring for country, passing on knowledge to children and meeting social, cultural and spiritual obligations are all reasons for harvesting food and part of daily life – and for the most part, these imperatives take precedence over commercial harvesting. The ‘value’ attached to country is much more than financial.

So what happens on a harvesting trip in the desert? What’s it like? I’ve been lucky enough to be part of several bush food hunting and gathering trips across Australia, and each of them has been very different, depending on the season, the conditions and who was present. Let me briefly share a story of digging for bush potatoes with friends at Canteen Creek (Owairtilla) in the Northern Territory and perhaps it will also help to explain the value concepts I mentioned above…

“If you dig here, see here where these three cracks in the ground cross over? If you dig down there, you’ll find a bush potato. Probably have to dig down a long way. Dry here for a long time, but that one will be there, just deep.”

And so I dug, standing up, and clumsily wielding a digging ‘stick’ made from half a steel crowbar. It was heavy! One of the children told me about new ‘21st century digging sticks being made by CAT (Centre for Appropriate Technology) in Alice Springs’ and how they hoped to get some soon. Around me, women and children laughed as I struggled with the unfamiliar movements. I laughed too, and surreptitiously tried to catch my breath.

“No, no! You should sit down and dig. You’ll get tired standing up there – sore back and sore sides. Here, like this.”

The speaker demonstrated, sitting on the ground, one leg beneath the outstretched other, fluidly wielding the crowbar to dig in the manner that women have done in this region for many thousands of years. Eventually, after digging down about half a metre, the prize was uncovered: a yam-like tuber approximately 30 centimetres in length and reminiscent of a very large kumara. The smell was subtle – earthy and fresh, with perhaps a hint of ginger.

The bush potatoes (Ipomoea costata) harvested that day were later cooked in the fire and eaten with kangaroo, the fur of which had been singed off in a fast burning grass fire and then the meat buried and cooked in hot coals. All around, the spinifex moved ceaselessly at the slightest breeze, its grey-green forming a living carpet on the red desert sand.

Around the campfire, we talked about the bush food we had harvested together, and I learned. I learned about important things like why we couldn’t go and dig beyond the bent-up tree and over the mound, even though we could see lots more cracks in the ground.

“So, you remember Aunty […], who you met last time you came? Well, she’s sick and that’s why she couldn’t come today. Past that tree and over the hill is her country. We can’t go there without her. It wouldn’t be right, because that’s her country, and she’s not here to call to it and we might not be recognized without her.”

And in that moment, I understood a little better the dichotomy of bush foods as both cash commodities and cultural icons. ‘No wonder there have been problems in trying to get the models right,’ I thought. Imagine a supply contract in place for say, bush tomatoes, between distributors or processors and the harvesters. Add to that some sort of western-style cooperative arrangements between harvesters to create value-chain efficiencies. (At the moment, harvesters each sell individually and are paid cash for what they pick). Now imagine three women in that community down with the flu, a couple of sick kids and a poor season. Firstly, if there were very few bush tomatoes around, it would be highly likely that the women wouldn’t pick them all to sell. There would be some to eat and some left – so that ‘country would continue to provide for us.’ Secondly, what bush tomatoes could be picked to meet the demand of the supply contract could only be picked from the ‘countries’ of those present as explained by the woman on the bush potato gathering expedition.

And if you think about that some more, you might conclude as I have, that there’s something not quite right about using products picked carefully and lovingly in this way and turning them into sauces and chutney to sell on supermarket shelves. Perhaps a better way might be to cultivate some bush foods and develop two supply streams – higher volume and more controlled from the cultivated supply to ensure continuity, and a premium product, hand-picked from the wild and provenanced and priced accordingly. Perhaps then, by creating greater industry confidence and investment potential, we could also generate a broader interest in bush foods and help in moving them from novelty to norm in Australia.

I continue to ponder these questions and keep on learning more about the desert environment and its bountiful food. And that environment continues to amaze with its sensory dichotomies of harsh terrain against subtle colours, its sounds and stillness. Sitting eating hot bush potatoes against a backdrop of endless sky and the setting sun turning red rocks purple, it was hard to bring to mind and compare the mechanical rhythms of the bush foods factory I’d recently visited with the natural ebb and flow of the desert. I reflected that it was here in the desert that bush food begins its journey from ‘here’ to ‘there’, where ‘here’ and ‘there’ are both physical places and places of meaning.

And now I understand that I too, am making a transformational journey – in the way my own worldview is becoming shaped through my research. But that’s a story for another day.

Dr Jen Cleary will be speaking at AGRIFOOD XXI on the subject of rural place.

Jen Cleary is a geographer with research interests in rural, regional and remote social and economic policy and development. She is highly experienced in participatory research and specialises in community engagement. She works across Australia, and has worked extensively with Aboriginal peoples from many Language Groups in remote Australia. Part of her work in research in remote Australia has focused on understanding the ways in which remote Aboriginal women participate in the Australian bush foods industry. Jen currently works part-time with GFAR, where her research is focused on maximising benefits to regional rural and remote communities from the export value of premium food and wine.