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How climate change is reshaping Australia's native food industry

Emma Ruben -

Long touted for their far-reaching health, cultural, environmental and social benefits, Australia's native foods industry is on the precipice of a boom, but as markets finally wake up to the produce's potential another global factor is increasingly cause for concern.

While once overlooked by mainstream industries, native foods and ingredients are now high in demand with suppliers struggling to keep up with demands.

The estimated value of the industry in 2019 was approximately $20 million, excluding macadamia which alone has carved out a $200m market.

But as the booming native food scene flourishes, the lands and waters it has thrived on for thousands of years are being put under pressure by climate change.

The recent State of the Environment report established Indigenous knowledge and culture will be affected by rising temperatures and changing climate patterns.

Wuthathi and Meriam co-chief author Terri Janke said natural disasters and rising sea levels would be among the many ways Indigenous communities would feel the brunt of climate change.

"There's no doubt about it that climate change will impact Indigenous people disproportionately," she said.

"It's already happening with rising sea levels in the Torres Strait, the changes of water coming in through in Arnhem Land and Kakadu.

Kakadu plums

"When the climate changes, so does the traditional knowledge and the Indigenous adaptation towards the solution."

However, climate change has also begun to impact the way native foods businesses and nurseries grow and harvest their foods.

Bininj founder of Kakadu Kitchen in Darwin, Ben Tyler said he worried most about how climate change would impact the native foods industry.

"The creeks and billabongs where we collect our water lilies on my mum's country, it's all beautiful wetland country which is a powerhouse of bush tucker," he said.

"But when we get to the year 2030, scientists say that the sea will rise and it will accelerate.

"So maybe within five or ten years from the year 2030 that whole area of Kakadu will be under sea water and we'll be fishing for sea turtle instead of freshwater turtle."

Thankfully, many native food nurseries and corporations have begun taking proactive steps to prevent climate change from harming the native food industry.

Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation is in the process of establishing its own Wurundjeri bush food garden and orchard on their site Coranderrk before setting up their own local 'supermarket'.

Wandoon Estate Aboriginal Corporation chairman and Elder Dave Wandin said warnings about the impact of climate change started with his father, who told him to beware of its impacts.

"Climate change has been the driver here," he said.

"My father told me this back in the mid-1990s, he said 'son learn all you can about your culture because one day you are going to be looking after this land'.

"And people are going to be coming and asking you, how can we survive in the climate that is coming.

"I laughed when he said that to me."

Now, Mr Wandin has understood the advice his father gave him and is committed to making sure his father's Country is protected.

"We've already accepted that climate change is coming and so we've done some very careful, what we call, reading of Country to work out what will grow where without exhausting the nutrients in the ground," he said.

"Modern technologies such as using solar power, are some of the best materials to build out our structure.

"There are also certain areas where we won't be able to grow bush foods so we will dedicate that to biodiversity preservation.

"The reality is by giving some of your land to biodiversity and conservation can actually increase the productivity, even though you have less land to do it on."

Nalderun, an Aboriginal agricultural services organisation look at climate change as part of who they are.

An educational based organisation, Nalderun aim to educate the future generation about Indigenous native foods and Country.

Executive officer, Kathryn Coff said they aim to teach their younger students about climate change so it is part of their worldview.

"We talk about our relationship with it (climate change) like we are part of it," she said.

"So we believe that everything we do now has complete impact on how we do Country.

"We should be role modelling how we should be on Country and we should be talking about it."

Black Duck Foods in Mallacoota Victoria have found ways to combat climate change so their native produce will not be affected.

General manager Bram Mason said Black Duck used traditional methods to resist the changing climate.

Dave Wandin on Coranderrk. Photo credit: Wandoon Estate

"Traditional methods sort of work with the changing climate," he said.

"We do manage the above ground vegetation to make sure that it's vigorous and it's in a healthy state so if a wildfire does go through, it will survive that.

"If anything, because of the methods we use the intensity of a wildfire would actually drop quite significantly once it hits the areas we are managing because they are managed for a biodiverse agriculture system.

Biodiversity seems to be a common thread as Mr Mason said it was what keeps their plant and nutrient systems healthy.

"Because we're keeping the system diverse and healthy it can react and survive and be tolerant to changing temperatures," he said.

Biodiversity and Environment Science chairman Stephen van Leeuwen said it was yet to be seen how stakeholders would respond to pressures placed on Indigenous ecosystems and people.

"It will impact on those culturally significant species, particularly the bush tucker, bush foods and bush meats and the availability of those to Traditional Owners," he said.

"Indigenous Australians, particularly those in remote, isolated areas are going to be heavily impacted by higher temperatures and so forth.

"But economically, they're at the poorer end of society so they have the least ability to respond and to adapt to these changes and challenges."

Mr van Leeuwen said the best chance to protect the native foods industry was for traditional knowledge and western science to work together.

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