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Indigenous Grasslands for Grain

Australian native grains for food, culture and the environment
Aboriginal people sustainably produced food from native ecosystems for thousands of years, including the world’s oldest bread. This project works with Aboriginal people to bring this system to modern agroecosystems and foods.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) produces grain high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Our aims

Finding solutions to modern environmental and cultural problems requires an approach than understands people, plants, animals, markets and money, and the cultural context in which they operate. This project aims to bring together cross-disciplinary experts to re-create the native grain production system, which sustainably produced food for people for thousands of years in Australia’s variable climate and soils. Species include mitchell grass, purslane, native millet, and other plants found in grassland/open woodland ecosystems which are known to have made highly nutritious ‘bush breads’ and similar products. These are being grown in various field trials at a hectare scale, food production is being quantified, seed is tested for nutritional value and system profitability is being modelled. The cultural impacts of all stages of the value adding chain are being considered in consultation with Aboriginal people, as well as potential importance to economic development in remote communities and human health benefits for people everywhere.

Saltbush threshing

Hand extraction of seed of old man saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) is time consuming and labour intensive. Combining traditional knowledge with modern technology is a key priority for this project.

Our research

The multi-disciplinary research includes these elements:

  • Animals
  • Agriculture
  • Environment/ecosystems
  • Biodiversity
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Historical/archaeological
  • Business and marketing
  • Economics
  • Food sciences
  • Nutritional research
  • Human Health
  • Human geography
  • IP and Law

Community engagement is central to the research strategy, and the vast majority of this is done on-country. Locations of current field operations include the University’s campus at Narrabri and surrounding farms, the TAFE training fields at Moree, and on Aboriginal managed land in the region.

The project includes engaging students from school to university level, with links with the University’s Wingara Mura - Bunga Barrabugu program ("Thinking Path to Make Tomorrow"), the high-tech development of new crop varieties by the Plant Breeding Institute, multi-disciplinary research in the Sydney Institute of Agriculture, undergraduate teaching, and industry engagement.

Current Projects

Project Title:

Paddock to plate: native grain food ecosystem

Sydney Institute of Agriculture

This project has brought together a multi-discipline research team to complete one iteration of the food system from paddock to plate, including associated economic modelling, establishment of environmental indicators and discussion of the potential cultural significance of bringing back traditional food species to Aboriginal people.

This process will quantify the potential of the system in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability (triple bottom line), then benchmark the system against current best-practice cropping in the district.

Project Title:

DigiFarm: a digitally enabled agroecosystem

National Landcare Program Smart Farming Partnerships

DigiFarm is a multimillion-dollar project demonstrating best-practice farming through digitally connecting data flows from farm and environmental productivity. It is based at Llara, a 600 ha property which forms part of the University’s Narrabri campus. The economic and environmental role that native grasses play due to the ecosystem services they provide and diversification of income is being investigated. Three field systems are being tested – native food only, native grains + cattle grazing and native grains + winter cropping.

Student engagement:

Native grain germination, yield, nutritional value, food properties, market value and more

University of Sydney

This project collaborates with a number of efforts to engage students of all cultures from high school, TAFE and University around native foods.

For example this project supports the Wingara Mura - Bunga Barrabugu Summer Program for Aboriginal students in years 10 to 12.

This project has an ongoing relationship with TAFE NSW, with a field at the Rural Skills Centre, Moree being used for native grains research which is also used by TAFE for teaching. This project employs an Aboriginal trainee through AFLSportsReady, who is currently working towards a Cert III in Conservation and Land Management.

Completed university level projects include:

Jenifer Widjojo – MSc, Utilising Australian native grasses in the modern food market: Panicum decompositum

Sophie Fowler – BFAB (Hons), An Evaluation of the commercial viability of Australian native grains

Melissa Zhang – BFAB (Hons), Characterising the nutritional composition of Australian purslane (Portulaca oleracea) varieties under different nitrogen and water availabilities

Tamlyn Huyhn – BFAB (Hons), The nutritional profile of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and its drought-resistant mechanisms

Tracy Leung – BFAB (Hons), The potential for Portulaca oleracea L. as a commercial crop in Australia

Marc Manzoni – BFAB (Hons), Increasing the germination potential of native Australian plants

Samuel Padgett – BEnvSys (Hons), Watching grass grow: germination of Australian native grasses


We welcome collaboration and industry partnerships. If you wish to study or interact with this group, please contact:

Angela Pattison

Research Scientist
  • +61 2 6799 2239
  • 12656 Newell Highway Narrabri NSW 2390 I A Watson Grains Research Centre