A new perspective on Australian native grasses

29 May 2020
Showcasing the importance of Australian native grasses in food production
To celebrate National Reconciliation Week, our scientists, architects, alumnus Richard Leplastrier AO, and an Indigenous architectural graduate, collaborate to present a vision for how we can respect land and community.

Using ancestral knowledge for a sustainable food system

Food production in inland Australia has been based on careful management of native grasslands for thousands of years by Aboriginal people. The system of regenerative agriculture developed over millennia provided them with nourishing food, despite harsh climates and poor soils.

Dr Angela Pattison, from the Faculty of Science, is driving the cross-disciplinary Indigenous Grasslands for Grains Project at the University’s Narrabri campus, which aims to regenerate the Australian native system for the modern food environment. It is a concept that brings together cultural and scientific knowledge, regional and urban centres, and sustainability with economic viability.

It’s time somebody did something like this with native grasses. It helps young people like me learn about the grasses my people used, what they were eating, and how it collaborates with agriculture.
Callum Craigie, Gamiliroi Field Trainee, Indigenous Grasslands for Grains Project

This research seeks to draw upon the insights of our ancestors, to create a food system with economic, environmental and health benefits.

“Grasslands have always provided food for humanity, whether it be a monoculture of wheat, or a field containing a mix of grass and non-grass species. If we can find a way for a native grassland to produce enough marketable seed per hectare to make a profit, this ancient food system can be restored on farmlands across a large potential area of the continent.

“There'll be environmental benefits because the grasses themselves create diverse grasslands; they benefit the soil; benefit climate change; and benefit biodiversity.

“There's health benefits of having high fibre diets, but also incredible cultural benefits to Aboriginal people being able to grow their own species,” said Dr Pattison.

Native grasses installation in the making

A new physical installation will be created on University of Sydney Camperdown campus and will bring new perspective and wonder to this research, transporting a part of Narrabri to Sydney, back, and beyond. The installation will represent the research and inspire ideas for innovation and sustainability. The collaboration is between scientist Dr Pattison; Michael Mossman from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning; influential architect and alumnus Professor Richard Leplastrier AO; a young Indigenous architectural graduate, Jack Gillmer, and technician Callum Craigie from the Plant Breeding Institute.

Senior Lecturer Michael Mossman believes that the installation is a wonderful opportunity to activate First Nations practices of placemaking in a university setting to enable dialogue between all cultures. "There are always ways to learn from and be influenced by the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. As an architect, I say that we can all listen to and embrace the qualities of Country and Indigenous cultures to enrich the way we practice,” he said.

A number of different grass species will be used to create the installation. The seedlings have been planted and will be ready to use for the installation in Spring this year.

Professor Leplastrier and Jack Gillmer visited Gamilaroi Land at the Narrabri campus to draw inspiration for their installation. They witnessed the unique agricultural landscape and native grasses, such as mitchell grass, purslane and native millet being grown in field trials.

"Respect for the land and the culture of our Aboriginal peoples is the foundation stone for our way forward as a nation. Walking together, our team is bringing the stories of local grasses and grains from ‘country’ to the heart of the city," said Professor Leplastrier. "Understanding the nature of ‘Narrabri’ is our first footstep."

“I am inspired about the agricultural landscape of change that is required for this country to move forward in a sustainable manner,” said Jack Gillmer.

The installation will commence on the University of Sydney Camperdown campus in Spring this year.

The Grasslands for Grains research at Narrabri connects researchers from Sydney Institute of Agriculture and Plant Breeding Institute with students, community and industry. 

Related articles