Salinity and land-related environmental crises are fast becoming a
reality which must be addressed. Unfortunately though, once again the debate
is being wound up within our corporatised or special-interest structures.
Farmers, politicians, city folk, greens and scientists are the groups
currently engaged in this very heated debate. Australia’s problems have
not been created by one group or another, but instead by our predominantly
Anglo-European attitudes towards the land – a mind-set which must be
changed in order to secure a future for later generations.
We now know that Australia is the driest, flattest, most infertile,
climatically most unpredictable and biologically most impoverished populated
continent on Earth. Australian soils contain approximately half the level of
nitrates and phosphates to equivalent soils found anywhere else.
Unfortunately our forefathers weren’t aware of this and the continent’s
size created an illusion which saw comparisons with the US and population
predictions of 500 million, popular. This caused a blind assault upon
Australia’s natural resources and has left a lasting and devastating
legacy for the land and its inhabitants.
Indeed, Mother Nature has hit back hard. The clearing of native
vegetation for crops with shorter roots and grazing pastures has seen the
salt water table rise to the surface of the land and seep into nearby river
systems. According to the CSIRO, salinity is now affecting 2.5 million and
threatening 15 million hectares of productive agricultural land. Australia’s
precious water supply – most notably the Murray-Darling Basin – is
severely under threat by the rising salt water table. Hundreds of plant,
insect and bird species are facing extinction and roads, buildings and
powerlines are deteriorating. And all this at a massive cost to the citizen
- $130 million annually in lost agricultural production, $100 million
annually in damage to infrastructure, and at least $40 million in loss of
Salinity is a phenomenon only recently apparent. Drought, instigated by
the El-Nino whether pattern, on the other hand has been a recurring
nightmare for Australian farmers. And this year is no exception, as farmers
revise their crop forecasts, and governments consider bailing them out under
‘exceptional circumstances’. According to the Bureau of Meteorology,
much of NSW, southern Queensland, central Victoria, eastern Tasmania and
parts of the southwest of WA have serious to severe rainfall deficiencies.
Some parts of NSW and WA are in the grip of the worst drought on record
(dating back to 1900).
Only 3 per cent of water on Earth is fresh and less than a third of 1 per
cent of that is
available for use by humans. Industrial development and population increases
have seen many parts of the world reach the limits of their supply and if
trends continue, nearly half of the world’s population will suffer from
water shortages within 25 years, according to UNESCO. With Australia being the driest
continent, the Snowy River reduced to 1 per cent of its original flow and the mouth
of the Murray about to close, the Government’s 'populate or perish' dictum
is suicidal. If we populate, we WILL perish!
In this year’s annual Australia Day Address, best-selling author Dr.
Tim Flannery, emphasized the public’s need to identify themselves with the
only thing which we all uniquely share in common – the land, its climate,
creatures and plants. Flannery said things like meat pies, Holdens and
Aussie Rules have tended to divide Australians rather than unite us. He
says: "I look forward to the day when we forget about whether it’s a
pie or souvlaki that’s being eaten, and ask instead what the meat is –
whether its sustainably harvested kangaroo, or beef from a polluting
feed-lot." With the harmful effects and unsuitability of traditional
farming practices now clearly evident isn’t it time we change our
Eurocentric attitudes? Eating our native produce isn’t just something that
could define us as a nation – it’s critical to our survival as one.
So what are the chances of an ecologically friendly and sustainable
industry which utilises our native biota? Is it economically viable? Is it
nutritious? More importantly, would Australians – most of whom have been
weaned on a diet of traditional meats and wheat products – want to eat
bread made from wattle seeds, snack on macadamia nuts or dine on stir-fried
kangaroo with Warrigal Spinach? I don’t think we have a choice!
Perhaps the most promising of our native produce is the kangaroo
industry. Although currently limited by our conservative attitudes and what
industry advocates call ‘Skippy syndrome’, the 30 year-old kangaroo
industry – producing mostly meat and leather products – now generates
more than $200 million a year in income and employs over 4,000
people. Industry experts believe the industry is fulfilling just 20 per cent
With a slightly gamey taste, 'roo meat is both more nutritious and safer
than traditional meats. It is higher in protein, has a lower fat content and
free from the chemical residues and bacteria that riddle domestic
produce. Eating mad cows pumped with
hormones and fed meat and bone meal has now killed 125 Europeans, so it’s little wonder
more of our kangaroo meat. And not just meat. According to leading sport
shoe companies, kangaroo leather is ‘very thin and soft but still has a
very high tensile and tear strength’ making it the leather of choice for
the world’s top soccer players.
Sustainably harvesting kangaroo has a number of environmental benefits.
First, it would mean we eat less beef and lamb – both hard-hoofed
animals which over-forage and erode our arid soils. These animals also
consume vast amounts of water and feed on grain which must be grown in our
precious soils. Furthermore, sheep and cows give off millions of tonnes of
methane gas – a potent greenhouse gas and contributor to global warming.
Kangaroos, on the other hand, are self sufficient and don’t fart
nearly as much as ruminants.
After two centuries of replacing our native vegetation with
salinity-inducing short-rooted crops such as wheat, there is great need for
an alternative. And it seems that wattle seed could be the answer. That’s
right, originally exploited by Aboriginal Australians for thousands of
years, modern science could see us commercially harvesting wattle seed to
make a highly nutritious and palatable flour. The good thing about this crop
is that it has a deep root system and is remarkably resistant to extremes in
temperature and climate.
As well as 'roo meat and wattle seed, there is a wide variety of other
native foods that have the potential to be commercially marketed and allow
us to live more harmoniously with the land. Bush fruits such as Quandongs,
Riberries, Muntries and Finger Limes; spices such as the mountain pepper,
bush tomato and lemon myrtle; and Warrigal Spinach – a plant that would be
used in salads, stir-fries and pastas.
Our British forefathers did not create a society here. Instead, they
imported all elements of their society from outside Australia and we have
since failed to survive anywhere near the level of coexistence to that once
achieved by Aborigines. Unfortunately though, it would take a brave farmer
to ditch his wheat crop and start producing wattle seed. It’s not just up
to the farmers. It’s time to realise that each and every one of us has a
part to play in our environmental crisis. In order to lessen the destructive
effects of recurring drought, salinity and El Nino and adapt to our unique
environment, we must change our predominantly European attitudes and take
advantage of our native produce.