Date posted: 08/09/2022 5 min read

Five things: Native foods

Opportunity knocks for the native and bush food industry. Consumption of local produce continues to grow amid demand from consumers and the international culinary scene.

In Brief

  • The native food global market is a A$20 million industry.
  • Kangaroo remains the most popular bush meat. It's currently exported to more than 60 overseas markets and is seeing increasing interest in Asia.
  • In New Zealand, mānuka honey is one of the country’s biggest exports, exported to more than 40 markets.

Story Kyle Rankin

1. The global market is a A$20 million industry

New Zealand’s green-lipped mussels do a roaring trade in the US, Japan and Europe. Known as kūtai in Māori, the native molluscs are now farmed with the industry worth a massive NZ$500 million in export and local consumption. From ants to witchetty grubs, it is estimated Australia has about 6500 native foods (products obtained from the native species of a specific area). While one-third are used by Indigenous communities, only a fraction are certified for commercial use. However, the industry is growing – it’s now worth A$20 million annually – with 87% of business operatives planning expansion over the next five years.

2. Indiginous ingredients has market appeal

Not just nestled on the shelves of specialist food outlets, native flavours and ingredients are popping up more and more. Kūmara (sweet potato), brought to New Zealand by the Māori’s Polynesian ancestors in the 1300s, is now enjoyed mashed and topped with marshmallows at Thanksgiving dinners across America and is even distilled to make vodka. Chefs at Harvest Newrybar in the Byron Bay Hinterland work with forager and wild-food researcher Peter Hardwick to showcase the likes of pickled kelp, coastal tea tree vinegar and cinnamon myrtle, while Kiwi chef and My Kitchen Rules New Zealand star Ben Bayly incorporates pāua (abalone) and huruhuru whenua (a native fern) into his dishes at his Auckland restaurant Ahi. Certainly, popular cooking programs have alerted viewers to exotic ingredients. MasterChef Australia brought green ants, river mint, quandongs and muntries to the fore and these days it’s not hard to find jams, relishes, sauces, biscuits, confectionery and even ice-cream enhanced with indigenous flavours.

3. Kangaroo remains the most popular bush meat

Wallaby, kangaroo, emu and crocodile meat all have domestic and export markets – and even witchetty grubs are making an appearance in haute cuisine. But ’roo in the stew is still the most popular bush meat. The kangaroo population in Australia numbers about 50 million, of which 3% is used in meat production, worth about A$200 million annually. The meat is currently exported to more than 60 overseas markets.

4. Honey and nuts are big exports

Mānuka honey is one of New Zealand’s biggest exports, selling to more than 40 markets. According to the Ministry for Primary Industries’ report in 2019–2020 mānuka honey accounted for 88% per cent of New Zealand’s honey export revenue. The treasured nectar is known for its antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may assist in wound healing. In Australia nuts account for 40% of horticultural exports, valued at A$1 billion. This includes the macadamia industry, which is A$280 million annually. Though native to Australia, the nuts are now grown overseas with Australia and South Africa sharing 50% of the global market. However, Australia is considered the global market leader as it produces premium macadamia nuts.

Manuka Honey

5. Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses are collaborating

While a 2018 survey by native food collective Bushfood Sensations reported only 1% of people working in the industry were Indigenous, it is expected the demand for produce will see increased Indigenous involvement. In 2021 the University of Queensland launched a A$1.5 million collaboration with Indigenous traditional owners to create long-lasting Indigenous businesses. This five-year project funded by the Australian Research Council will see researchers working with Indigenous communities advising on how to commercialise native foods. Across the Tasman Māori businesses have a larger presence than in Australia, contributing to 30% of lamb production and 10% of kiwifruit farming.

Green antsPictured: Found in the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland green ants have a powerful lemon flavour. Aboriginal people would boil them in water to make a traditional remedy drink that relieved colds and sore throats.

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