By Fiona Smith
A bush foods export market could become an employer and source of income for communities – but only if the rights of Indigenous Australians are protected.
When we raise a glass of bubbly, we know if it doesn’t come from France it’s not champagne. If the recipe calls for parmigiano-reggiano, you will be buying cheese imported from Italy.
Consumers can be specific about these things because the wine industry and European farmers have established rules and protections so producers from other countries and regions cannot copy them and pass off imitations as “the real thing”.
In Australia there is a growing momentum to introduce protections for bush foods, which would give traditional owners a more secure stake in an industry that shows promise – especially in terms of its export potential.
Native foods, such as the Kakadu plum (which is prized for its high levels of vitamin C), have value as food, but also for their traditional medicinal properties and other uses.
Intellectual property rights over the uses of those foods can also be a source of income through royalties for Indigenous communities.
Gavin Brown, co-owner of PwC Indigenous Consulting, says discussions on these issues are becoming more frequent among farming organisations and Indigenous communities.
“Can only things from Kakadu be called the Kakadu plum?” he asks.
Well-known native foods include lemon myrtle, wattle seed, finger lime, warrigal greens, quandong and bush tomatoes.
Although the export markets for these foods has so far been small due to lack of supply, this could be about to change. Brown’s consultancy has been working with the Australian native food and botanicals industry body to create an export company for bush foods.
The proposal is that small growers could sell their produce into the company – possibly a co-operative – which could help develop the industry into a significant employer and source of income for Indigenous people.
“This could be transformative for traditional owners,” says Brown, who has been canvassing the idea with federal government departments, who may be asked for some seed funding.
The native foods market is conservatively estimated to be worth between $10m and $16m.
“This is based on 2000 and 2007 sources and the industry has since had a massive boom,” says Brown.
The impact of small farming operations on communities was the subject of a recent speaking tour by a Zimbabwean farmer, Chido Govera, who has been teaching women to grow mushrooms as a way of achieving financial independence.
In those countries, people can run a small business, using a square metre of space to grow $500 worth of mushrooms over eight weeks.
“When they have $500, you can change their lives. The space that you use to grow mushrooms is very minimal and almost anybody can do it,” Govera told an audience at the NSW Aboriginal Land Council in early May.
Wendy Morgan, chair of the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council, says while the countries that Govera’s foundation operates in cannot be compared with the economic conditions in Australia, land councils are also trying to find ways to grow economic support for their communities.
At the moment, the lack of protections around bush foods is a missed opportunity, she says.
“You’ll have the big pharmaceutical companies coming out and talking to [Indigenous communities] and taking samples of their medicines. They might acknowledge where they got it from, but there is no money going back into that community they got the information from,” she says.
In one notable case, the Texas-based cosmetics company Mary Kay withdrew an application to patent extracts from the Kakadu plum in 2011 after protests from Indigenous groups who claimed the restriction would prevent them from using the fruit for medicine.
Creating self-sufficient Aboriginal-owned and -run businesses is a priority for First Australians Capital, a public benevolent institution that was set up to provide sources of finance to Indigenous entrepreneurs.
Jocelyn Grant, the general manager of First Australians Capital, says her organisation raises money from individuals and philanthropic funds.
“For 200 years, we’ve been conditioned to sit at the hand of governments for handouts. For us, First Australians Capital, it is about building our own economic future and using the profits from those enterprises to then deal with complex social problems,” she says.
“All communities have complex social problems, but a lot of other communities have access to funds to address it – whether it be their own, or family and friends. For Aboriginal people, that has been taken away, historically.”
Grant says she has been working with a not-for-profit business that processes Kakadu plums and has found that intellectual property rights have become a stumbling block for the development of the bush foods industry.
“In order to access any government support … they have to sign a contract, signing over all the IP. It has to be unrestricted and royalty-free,” she says.
Aboriginal communities are reluctant to sign away their rights, knowing that someone else could take their knowledge and commercialise it.
“Why wouldn’t we look at a whole-of-government strategy where not only are we protecting Indigenous foods and the rights of people passing on knowledge about those foods – but also the value to the Australian economy is huge because it is an export opportunity,” she says.
Friday 26 May 2017 00.37 BST Last modified on Friday 26 May 2017 00.38 BST