NZ-Australia manuka honey trademark fight hurting producers

Originally published in The Examiner 8 September (Available here)

Our cousins across the ditch (Tasman not the Bass Strait) are laying sole claim to the botanical name "Manuka" so that New Zealand can have the world rights to marketing.

They are doing so with a New Zealand government-backed fund. The main, if not only, reason anyone would want sole rights to a name is because of its marketing value. A casual glance at the supermarket shelf informs the buyer that Manuka honey carries with it a premium price compared to other honey - even our cherished leatherwood.

Manuka honey happens to contain a naturally occurring compound - methylglyoxal. In 2006 this compound was identified as the dominant antibacterial constituent of Manuka honey. Ever since then the honey has gained in reputation as a food and in medicinal and cosmetic applications. Taxpayers are currently funding six separate research projects into its qualities and potential uses.

Manuka is the honey sector's equivalent to abalone in the fishing sector. For a long time, it was worthless but now commanding top dollar. Of such nuisance value was Manuka honey that it was once washed away in the river. If only the bees could be trained to stay away. No market, no value.

But along a market came with an appetite so vociferous right across the world it isn't easy to satisfy. Within 10 years it was worth more than $1 billion per annum.

The humble unwanted Leptospermum, which produces the necessary blossoms, is now so sought after, entrepreneurs are trialling plantations as the wild-growing areas can't produce sufficient supply.

This is the first time a plant has been domesticated and planted just for honeybees, according to Dr Barbour, the chief executive of the Cooperative Research Centre into Honeybee Products. Australia is blessed with 83 varieties of this Leptospermum growing down South East Australia's coastline from Queensland right through to Tasmania, and across to Western Australia. It grows in New Zealand as well.

In both our countries, Leptospermum grows wild. New Zealand has just the one variety, yet they're claiming the right to sole usage of the name. It has long been accepted in world trade that geographical names can be protected if it is analogous with a product, for example, Champagne. Saving a botanical name which occurs naturally in different countries such as Manuka would set a disruptive world precedent.

New Zealand's honey producers are going full bore in their attempt to snatch the rights to the name "Manuka" with a clumsily attempted arms-length yet obvious slush fund of $6m from the New Zealand government.

From their own sources, our hard-working, enterprising beekeepers can't match such an exorbitant fighting fund provided by New Zealand's taxpayers.

While in relative terms our honey sector mightn't be large it is worth protecting in its own right and should be exciting more significant government support, both diplomatically and financially in this fight with New Zealand. Apart from the correctness in supporting our own is the vital principle of maintaining an open world trade protocol whereby botanical names cannot be opportunistically claimed.

If New Zealand believes it has the best Manuka honey in the world, it should market it as "New Zealand Manuka honey". And we would market ours as "Tasmanian" or "Australian".

A fair, reasonable, sensible solution protecting everyone's interest without disrupting long-established and fully acceptable international understandings.

Why devote a column to this topic? A bit of nostalgia perhaps. I kept bees with my father as a hobby, even taking them to the South West for the leatherwood season. It was hard work, yet a rewarding hobby. Those who do it all day every day - our beekeepers - deserve our full support.

Imagine their response after detailing their plight to Canberra, and the suggestion to consider changing the name of their honey. They were entitled to be angrier than a poked beehive.

These officials, who may well think honey comes from jars (like milk from bottles), need to show as a minimum greater empathy as well as a fighting commitment to our hard-working regional enterprises and job providers which ultimately provide the tax base which pays their wages. All societies seem to replicate the culture of the beehive with its workers and freeloaders (drones). Like a beehive in winter, the Manuka honey sector has no room for the drones of officialdom who are willing to live off the rewards but who make no contribution in working for or protecting the hive.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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