The Grasslands for Grains is working with Aboriginal communities in northern NSW to explore the potential of hardy native crops or ‘dhunbarrbila’.
After about a year of studying fields around Narrabri, Moree, and on Aboriginal managed land in the region, the team has already determined that approximately 10 grains are not only edible but are now considered commercially viable.
“There are a few native plants that are already semi-domesticated and commercialised … lemon myrtle etc. but they’re mostly fruit; what we wanted to focus on is bulk foods or foods that come from grasslands. Within that, I’d say there’s 10 or so that have commercial potential from up here,” lead researcher Dr Angela Pattison told Inside Retail.
While these native grains have slightly different properties to popular grains like wheat, for example, they can still be used as a base ingredient for products like bread. The research team is now exploring just how much potential these ingredients have.
“We’ve got people looking at the GI index, the ash content, gut health, and the most exciting part is we have chefs experimenting with using the grains to make food products,” Pattison said.
Very often these grains are naturally occurring in areas that are home to some of Australia’s most critically endangered wildlife. Pattinson believes a holistic approach to using these grains can benefit many aspects of Australian life.
“If we can bring back the grasslands, not only is there an economic opportunity for remote communities but also as an amazing place to restore ecosystems.”
The team has approached the project from a “paddock to plate” perspective, exploring potential obstacles in each element of the supply chain. One of the biggest challenges for these grains is achieving consistency.
Pattison explained that traditionally the same clan would manage all aspects of the native grains supply chain and could easily follow the journey from farm to plate. Nowadays, our long and complex food supply chains mean that stringent product quality and consistency rules are necessary.
“Now, because of the long supply chain you have to get this really consistent product. The native grains haven’t been developed to produce consistent product. They don’t grow in monocultures; they work best when they’re growing in diverse communities. The maturity of the grain is quite different at different times of year, and also, because they’re very small, they’re very hard to mechanically process,” Pattison said.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge creating a consistent product for the market in an economically viable way.”
While there are technologies available to simplify the process, it adds extra time, expense and labour.
“The implications for the end consumers at the moment is the cost to buy native grain would be a couple of hundred dollars per kg. The price needs to come down to make the system work.”
While there is a lot of work to be done to make native grains more widely available, there are already some Indigenous enterprises that are bringing native goods to the public.
Sharon Winsor, a Ngemba Weilwan woman from Western NSW, founded a business called Indigiearth. She sources native Australian foods from Aboriginal communities who use traditional land management practices that respect the land.
Black Duck Foods, an Indigneous social enterprise based in Mallacotta, Victoria, has a vision to re-develop traditional food growing and country management processes for the economic benefit of Indigenous people and country.
A message on the Black Duck Foods website reads: “The challenge for Australia is to accept Indigenous communities re-engaging and empowering themselves with the utility of these pre-colonial food systems and land stewardship practices, and for us to support Indigenous Australians leveraging their own traditional culture and knowledge for economic benefit and environmental stewardship.”
While Pattison said there are currently very few people harvesting native grains, she expects they will slowly become more visible and easier to purchase.
“I’d still say for several years they will stay in the high end market range just because it’s such a challenge to process, until we get the technologies and get the economies to scale, to be able to do this in bulk.”
Embracing Australia’s food culture
While it may be some time before we can reap the benefits of native grains on a larger scale, Sharon Natoli, founding director of Food & Nutrition Australia is confident that they will be welcomed by Australian consumers and industry.
“The use of native grains has the potential to provide part of the solution to some of our biggest challenges when it comes to the future of the food sector, including helping to address climate change, providing a natural source of nutrition and preserving and re-creating a food culture that makes sense as part of our national identity,” Natoli told Inside Retail.
“Consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it is grown, the values of the companies that produce it and the impact it has on the environment, and this year we have also seen rising interest in supporting locally grown produce. Understanding, and working with, the whole story of the food places native grains in a strong position as an ingredient that food businesses should be very interested in telling.”
Natoli said the research is a great example of how the food sector can establish future-ready teams and expand thinking beyond the usual to incorporate social and cultural food experts.
“Australia, and our native food industry, is really well positioned to acknowledge, learn and apply the wisdom from the past together with the science of today to create something better for the future.”