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Harvesting knowledge

30 June 2017
Researchers to learn the language of Indigenous food and biology

Agricultural scientists are working with the Indigenous community, farmers and food processors in Narrabri to understand and share knowledge about the biology and ecology of native food plants, and their agricultural potential.

Seedling growing out of soil

Researchers from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and the Sydney Institute of Agriculture at the University’s I.A. Watson Grains Research Centre at Narrabri, are learning the language of Indigenous foods and biology in projects to engage with the local Indigenous community and local farmers to further understand and revive the use of native foods.

We want to support the pride that the local community has for traditional foods and practices, and these initiatives have great potential for education and investigation from diverse groups...
Dr Peter Ampt, lecturer in natural resource management.

Indigenous people have been sustainably cultivating nutritious foods from native species for thousands of years. There is much we can learn about the types of food plants that are suitable to grow in particular places, and how we can incorporate modern scientific equipment and practices to work with the community to revive their use, improve the ecology of the region and open up potential agricultural enterprises.  

Dr Angela Pattison and Dr Peter Ampt are part of the research team working to build relationships with the community and advance native food initiatives in the Narrabri region.   

“The knowledge and practices of harvesting Indigenous foods from the ‘wheat-sheep belt’ of Southern Queensland and inland New South Wales was suppressed due to the economic value of these lands to European-style agriculture, and many Indigenous practices were overridden by early European colonisation.”  

The Indigenous grain belt, or northern grain belt extended far beyond the current wheat-sheep belt, and contained a vast array of native food plants spread across both highly productive agricultural soils and very poor soils.

“Our community partners have spoken of the potential of these plants as nutritionally and economically important foods. Their natural ability to survive climatic extremes and their adaptation to the pests and diseases of the region make them excellent candidates as food sources moving forwards.

“The theme of NAIDOC Week this year is ‘our languages matter’. The University has been presented with an opportunity to work with the community to acknowledge that the language surrounding biology and food is fundamental to our understanding of ecological and environmental processes, agricultural viability and nutritional value,” Dr Ampt said.

National NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair Anne Martin said languages are the breath of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the theme will raise awareness of the status and importance of Indigenous languages across the country.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything: law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for Country, astronomy, biology and food,” said Anne Martin.

Dr Ampt said the projects being initiated in Narrabri will start the conversations around geography, health, biology and food, and can provide vital knowledge about the way forward for the management of land and food.  

Although the projects are still in their infancy, there has been a positive response from the community thus far, and the educational benefits for the transfer of traditional knowledge from community Elders to Indigenous youngsters has been a driver for involvement.

“We want to support the pride that the local community has for traditional foods and practices, and these initiatives have great potential for education and investigation from diverse groups such as scientists, Indigenous Elders, health workers, teachers, growers and environmental groups. Improving public education about Indigenous land and food knowledge is also identified as a key focus, and establishing local native food enterprises.

“We are just starting to kick off two linked projects – one is an Indigenous Food Research Park, and the other is the Grasses for Grains project,” Peter said.

Indigenous Food Research Park

Discussions are underway for a large, functional research plot on the University’s Narrabri grounds.

Dr Angela Pattison said: “Indigenous foods play an important role in culture, environmental sustainability and human health. The purpose of the park is to unite people with an interest in investigating and developing Indigenous food species in the region, creating a central location for initial investigation, collaboration, seed sources and education.

“We will be using horticultural and agronomic techniques and plant breeding to improve properties such as yield, palatability and harvestability of the species chosen for investigation. Concurrently, market research and product development will be considered to improve the value adding of products, including whether the food is packaged, ground or dried.

“The park will be open to the public and research results will be made openly available so food and environmental knowledge can be appropriately shared and passed on to the next generation. Results on aspects such as improved varieties can also be used by land managers and food processors who can work with Indigenous partners to develop native food enterprises, cultural projects, educational gardens or environmental plantings.”

It is proposed that the board of directors for the research plot will be primarily Indigenous Elders, tasked with ensuring the work is sustainable, culturally appropriate, and that the benefits of the work flow back to Indigenous people.

Grasses for Grains

The Grasses for Grains project is operating within the Indigenous grain belt, and is bringing farmers who manage livestock together with Indigenous communities to develop opportunities for the use of native grass seed for land regeneration and for food.

Stipa Native Grasses Association brings together farmers who are managing grazing animals to regenerate native grasslands. We are linking them with Indigenous communities,” said Peter.

“We are investigating perennial, dual-purpose native grass species that have the potential to be used for both grazing and grain. Other priorities include sourcing alternative crops that are resilient to the impacts of climate change, or can improve ecological and soil health.”  

Collaboration is key. Traditional knowledge holders are informing scientists and farmers where the appropriate ecological zones are for growing particular Indigenous food sources. Scientists are drilling down to the genetics of the plants and testing their nutritional and baking properties. Farmers are investigating harvesting options with modern equipment, based around knowledge of traditional harvesting techniques.

“We have already begun our research in identifying appropriate species. One such plant is native millet seed. We are currently investigating its starch properties in our bread quality laboratory. Researchers and students are doing test baking and human taste testing in addition to lab tests of the nutritional content of the grain,” said Dr Angela Pattison.

Meshing old and new has not come without challenges. Mitchell grass has been part of the staple diet for people in much of inland northern Australia for thousands of years, however much of the knowledge on how to process the grain has been lost or is ‘sleeping’.

“We have tried a few methods with modern equipment to remove hairs and glumes but are still searching for a more effective method. Similar challenges exist with species from central NSW, so the conversations continue and expertise and advice is being sought from the community” said Angela.

Watch this space as we look to the past and conduct research alongside Australia’s original farmers to inform the way forward.