Earlier this year I read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which is a pretty interesting primer on Aboriginal ways of life pre-colonisation. One of the things that stood out to me personally was all the native crops that used to be cultivated here, things like native millet and rice. One of the perennial problems in Australia – getting worse with climate change – is long periods of drought requiring careful water management, something that is not very compatible with growing imported crops like cotton or Asian rice. We know that the large-scale cultivation of such imported crops is a huge problem in the Murray-Darling Basin, for example, where the overuse of water upstream causes major environmental damage down the line.
Native crops, however, have actually evolved to flourish in Australian conditions, and Aboriginal societies managed the land carefully to make the best use of them. In Dark Emu you can learn that land now considered very marginal, suitable only for ranching, like in far western NSW, was not so long ago lush and green with a wide range of native grains and yams. With a bit of start-up support, as well as a market willing to buy native grains and rice (more likely these days with the recent trendiness of “whole foods”), there’s no reason why these crops couldn’t be grown widely again.
I was reminded of this in recent days because I read a couple of articles describing efforts exactly like this. The Guardian published an article about a study in NSW, trying to find which grains would be most economically viable, and found that native millet was the best candidate because of the ease of growing it, high nutritional value and pleasing taste. And then the ABC published one about an Aboriginal-run farm in Central Victoria, cultivating a range of foodstuffs that they hope to sell to local restaurants and farmers' markets. It is already possible to buy some native herbs, spices, and other small things like that – things like lemon myrtle and bush tomatoes – but the more of these items that become available, the better, in my opinion.
An important theme in both articles – as well as in Dark Emu – is the importance of indigenous people themselves being able to cultivate these crops and profit from their success. This isn’t just because they tend to be the ones with the knowledge as how to cultivate these crops and what to do with them once grown, but also because you’d think they have that moral right. Settlers, through colonisation, have already dispossessed Aboriginal people of so much of their land and restricted their ability to engage in agriculture so heavily… a few subsidies to help Aboriginal-run farming collectives get off the ground are the least you could do to help start (and it’s a very small start) evening the scale.
But in the future, as Australia continues to contend with erratic rainfall and the unsustainability of a lot of introduced livestock, we might see the agriculture industry transformed more broadly. Bruce Pascoe himself, in Dark Emu, got almost dreamy as he imagined the changes that could take place: if red meat has to be produced, then kangaroo is much more sustainable than cattle or sheep; and if native grains, rices and yams supplanted the introduced varieties, we could reap the benefits from the improved management of our land and waterways. Now whether Australia is the kind of country likely to accept or implement such radical changes, at least for the moment I have some doubts. But as a beginning, the kinds of small-scale projects I’ve been seeing in the news seem pretty encouraging.