Condiments, oils and cremation fuels on the table as Australia’s spice industry gains momentum

Global spice trade intensifies with Australian farmers and processors are crafting a plan to take advantage of a booming food and supplement market sector.

Only 3 percent of Australia’s $ 494 million spice industry is produced locally, with most imported from Asian and African countries.

CQ University researcher (CQU) Tieneke Trotter said the Spicing Up Northern Australia research project has shown Australia to be more than capable of growing popular spices like black sesame, kalonji and fennel.

“We haven’t grown this on a large scale, but now we have seeds available and we are working on agronomy for these short-season, high-value crops that can work in rotation,” she said.

With the allure of joining a $ 30 billion global market for the spices on offer, lead researcher Surya Bhattarai said it was important to tailor agronomic packages to farmers.

“The partnership is very strong between producers, industries and researchers, so things are moving in the right direction, it is real and we are happy to see the results coming,” he said.

With most of the spices grown on small plots, harvested and processed by hand in facilities that can cause transfers of listeria or salmonella, experts say mechanized production could help access markets with strict standards like Japan and Korea.

Three popular spices currently imported to Australia have been shown to be viable in the Spicing Northern Australia trials.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

“Spices are growing rapidly in a multicultural world and there is a desire to have local spices in Australia, we have a reputation for clean and green food,” said Dr Bhattari.

With a large Hindu population in Australia due to recent immigration, the by-product of a spice culture can even be used for briquettes used in funeral rites.

“They can be made from compressed biomass from black sesame stubble, they are highly valued and in demand in Hindu culture,” Dr Trotter said.

“They become part of the cremation process, producing biomass that would not be used in our cropping systems unless the compost itself can become a valuable commodity.”

The compressed black sesame straw briquettes are used in Hindu funeral rites and could become a value-added product for the industry.(Provided: Tieneke Trotter)

Farmers need support

Growers in Rockhampton, Lower Burdekin, Tully and Katherine in the Northern Territory experimented with different spice crops.

But farmers may be wary of new crops given past experiences with poorly adapted rice breeds and disappointing support from some seed companies.

Tully’s agronomist Charissa Rixon has experimented with fallow crops for sugarcane paddocks and said information from North American growers could pave the way for Australian farmers to adapt spices to large area paddocks.

“Nutrition is easy and inexpensive, but when it comes to herbicide and weed management, we still have a long way to go,” she said.

spice crops paddock
The kalonji, fennel and sesame sown in winter in Giru, south of Townsville, have been hailed as a success.(Provided: CQU)

Meanwhile, Peter Foxwell, a dryland cotton and grain producer in central Queensland, said the industry must be equipped with the right tools to ensure that cultivated spices present balanced risks and reliable returns.

After five years of growing black sesame, the grower said he has experienced a steep learning curve with cultivation.

“Every year of novelty, there was no grower record, no information, no agronomic system in place to figure out how to grow it in the first place,” he said.

Turning recently to kalonji trials, Mr Foxwell said the rapid crop life cycle was an attractive proposition.

“But for this to work in our system, we need to be able to plant with the same equipment, cultivate, spray, harvest, so we’ll have to make some changes.

“These crops can be widely adapted by a number of farmers with existing equipment, we found.”

grocer in his store holding packages of spices
Babu Potunak already stocks Australian lentils and peas and says more local produce could lower prices and improve availability.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

The grocer supports Australian culture

Hyderabad-born Babu Potunak sells 90% Indian goods at his store on Ross River Road in the Indian shopping district of Townsville.

“We sell basic spices like turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise in large quantities to customers in the subcontinent,” he said.

But with the shortage of container shipping services recently, Mr. Potunak’s prices must have increased.

“The prices of these products are not going up because they are bought locally, because inflation in Australia is not that high.

“If they could grow these spices in Australia, with our similar climate, I think if they can grow them here, it will be cheaper and more reliable.”

With kalonji also popular with his African customers, Mr Potunak said producing locally was an obvious choice.

man holding seeds in hand
Surya Bhattarai with kalonji seeds collected in Burdekin.(Provided: CQU)

Local ten percent target

Lewis Hunter, chief executive of seed company AgriVentis Technologies, a partner in the project, said bold plans are underway to capture market share with high-end, non-GMO and traceable spice products.

“The nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industry also uses these products, so quality and integrity are important, Australia can provide that safety and purity.”

With two hectare plots cultivated commercially so far, the company aims to triple the produced sector in Australia from three to 10% of the market by 2024.

“We are committed to taking the information that has been collected to enable us to bring it into the commercial market for our investors, including in Europe,” said Mr. Hunter.

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