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Are you what you eat – Australian?

By Troy Duncan - posted Saturday, 9 March 2002

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 environmental assets.


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 of its potential.

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 they're importing 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.

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About the Author

Troy Duncan is a freelance journalist.

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