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Nick Gibbs

Native food potential mapped across Aust

Modern non-native crops such as sugarcane and wheat need intensive cultivation, Dr Adam Canning says (PR HANDOUT IMAGE PHOTO) (AAP)

Growing Australian natives as a commercial crop can restore balance in the ecosystem, and new research shows which parts of the country have the best potential.

Researchers from James Cook University have taken 170 native foods and mapped the country's entire landscape to show where they will grow best, depending on climate and soil type.

Among the hotspots is the Great Barrier Reef catchment area, which shows promise for some of the most in-demand varieties including lemon myrtle, native plums and bush tomatoes.

Including more natives in Australia's agriculture mix can restore balance in the coastal ecosystems by reducing runoff, improving soil health and supporting biodiversity, research author Adam Canning said.

"Modern non-native crops such as sugarcane and wheat need intensive cultivation, irrigation, herbicides, and pesticides, and are grown as monocultures," Dr Canning said.

"This comes at a cost to the environment, and we've seen this happen along the Great Barrier Reef catchment."

Natives that have evolved in Australian conditions are likely to be more resilient to floods and drought, and can be used as a hedge as climate change has a growing impact on weather.

There is also an opportunity for agricultural ventures to more resemble natural landscapes with different varieties growing together in a system likely to appeal to native animals and insects.

"That creates less voids for pests to come on in," Dr Canning said.

As well as Queensland's wet tropics, areas in southeast Queensland, NSW and Victoria were predicted to support the greatest diversity of native foods.

"These areas are the most agriculturally intensive areas with degraded environments, but they also have the greatest potential for regenerative agricultural practices," he said.

"Farmers could start small by trialling intercropping, and slowly expand as knowledge and industries grow."

Financial benefit schemes could also be developed further to reward farmers for ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration and reduced pollution.

The research also notes significant opportunities for Indigenous-led business models within the emerging bush foods sector.

The research paper Rediscovering wild food to diversify production across Australia's agricultural landscapes was published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

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