Locked away in the genes of native foodtsuffs used for millennia by Australian Aborigines - known as 'bush tucker' - may be the key to growing crops on a hotter, drier, saltier planet. But 30 years of bush tucker science is now teetering on the edge.
AUSTRALIA’S RED CENTRE is a forbidding place. It claimed the lives of 18th century explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt, and regularly continues to claim the unprepared tourist.
But to the Wapiti people* whose lands lie near Yuendumu, 290 km north west of Alice Springs, this place is home. And part of the secret to their survival is their totem: Wapiti, also known as Vigna lanceolata. Like the resourceful Wapiti people, this hardy bush tucker plant can thrive in conditions that would make a domesticated species keel-over.
How does the plant to do it? Bob Lawn reckons he needs three lifetimes to discover the secrets of V. lanceolata. But at the age of 65, the Foundation Professor of Tropical Crop Science at James Cook University in Townsville, is running out of time.
His fervent hope is that his seed collection of V. lanceolata and other bush tuckers of the Vigna family will provide the means for others to continue the work.
IT MAY NOT HAPPEN. Lawn’s collection is in danger of dying as the Biloela seed bank in Queensland, which holds the collection, has run out of funding to maintain it. The collection contains seeds gathered by Lawn, his family, students and volunteers over 30 years of rambling across Australia’s Top End from the Queensland coast through the Tanami desert to the Kimberley.
Some of the varieties may have since been lost to grazing, urbanisation and climate change. When Lawn tried to find a species collected by Ludwig Leichhardt in Ipswich, Queensland, he found the native vegetation replaced by a park.
Somehow the institutions that fund agricultural research don’t share Lawn’s passion for Australia’s wild legumes. But they should.
Lawn believes these extraordinary plants have much to teach agricultural scientists about how to breed crops for harsh conditions. Crucially, Australia’s wild Vignas are kissing cousins to Asian staples such as mungbean, black gram, adzuki bean and rice bean (used to make dhal or noodles) and to Africa’s staple legume – the cowpea – also known as “poor man’s meat.”
The strategies used by the wild crops or the genes themselves could be used to improve the domestic varieties. As a good global citizen and under the terms of an international treaty, Australia is obliged to collect and characterise its wild crop seeds and to make them available to other countries.
The wild Vignas also hold compelling lessons for Australian agriculture as farmers face the prospect of cultivating legumes in saltier soils in a hotter, drier climate.
* The Wapiti people are part of the Warlpiri nation to which all the groups around Yuendemu belong.