Jacob Birch is an academic, entrepreneur, and Churchill Fellow passionate about re-awakening, and bringing into a modern context, the native grain foodways that sustained his Gamilaraay ancestors for thousands of generations. Jacob’s professional journey into the native grain space began by conducting transdisciplinary research to investigate the nutritional qualities of Australian native grains for human consumption and presenting those results through a Gamilaraay lens to give agency to First Nations voices and experience. Jacob advocates for a First Nations led industry and pushes back against the capture of native grains into the industrial food system in favour of showcasing a return to Indigenous ways for a regenerative, equitable, and just future for all. Jacob’s passion is driven by the holistic suite of benefits native grains offer, including restoring native grasslands for carbon storage, biodiversity, and landscape resilience; food sovereignty, including asserting Indigenous rights to control and maintain their foods; cultural and social revitalisation through revitalisation of traditional food knowledge and practices; and importantly, the underlying opportunity to increase capacity and capability within First Nations communities as they move along the path towards nation building and self-determination.
About Jacob’s project:
Using his honours research as a springboard, Jacob has connected with a broad range of stakeholders from across the globe to understand the complexity in authentically re-awakening the native grain food system. Through this work, he has amassed considerable knowledge and insight into the native grain space. In drawing together the threads, between and within the complexity of this space, it has become clear that reawakening this industry has the potential to begin providing solutions to some of humanity’s biggest existential threats, and could fundamentally shift paradigms for First Nations people. However, this can only work if First Nations people can assert their right to self-determination and have decision-making authority within this space.
Self-determination, in the context of this project, is synonymous with nation building. It’s about having the capabilities, capacities, systems, and structures in place for a nation, clan, language group, or community, to be able to make decisions that relate to them on their lands. In the context of the native grain industry, it requires leadership that represents the communities upon which the work is being done. For example, the Gamilaraay people once operated extensive native grain systems; it is on Gamilaraay Country where the first commercially viable crops, in a modern context, have been re-established; it is on Gamilaraay Country where significant research is happening; and it is the Gamilaraay people who are beginning to activate around this opportunity. Therefore, it must be the Gamilaraay community who asserts independent governance of the native grain industry, with and for Gamilaraay Country.
Moving away from a national body to lead the native grain industry and putting the power into the hands of a self-determining community challenges the current paradigm which seeks to replicate the top-down approach of Western models or to hold these governance structures within Western institutions. This new paradigm is not new at all, but rather a return to our old ways of governance, a time-tested model that is based on reciprocity, relationality, respect, and responsibility. Therefore, we are looking at the First Nations led development of the native grain industry not only as an opportunity to develop an exciting new agricultural opportunity, but also as an opportunity to simultaneously use the development of the native grain industry as a vehicle for nation building. This will be achieved by setting up independent systems and structures of governance, whilst also growing the capacity and capability within communities. Paramount to both outcomes being successful is clear direction under robust leadership.
Therefore, the aim of this project is to engage with the Gamilaraay community to co-design a strategy to use the development of the native grain industry as a nation building tool. Our intention is that our model can be replicated by any community across Australia and used as a template to be implemented within their own community, tailored to their own food, agricultural, or land-based opportunity. The expected outcomes of this project will be:
- The publication of a comprehensive and robust roadmap which details the strategies and activities required for the development of a First Nations led native grain industry within 10 years, whilst simultaneously growing the capacity and capabilities of First Nations communities to assert self-determination.
- The establishment of an independent, Gamilaraay led governing body that will oversee the research and development of the native grain industry on Gamilaraay Country to ensure a holistic suite of benefits emerge in line with community aspirations and expectations, with the intergenerational purpose of being a vehicle for nation building.