Honey producers are optimistic that the latest genetic findings that distinguish New Zealand mānuka from Australian will play well for future efforts to protect the honey variety.
A recent genetic study across 2000 DNA markers or “SNiPs” from New Zealand and Tasmanian plants identified what the researchers described as vast differences – so much so, they could potentially be classed as a different species.
Those differences were estimated to have evolved between nine million and 12 million years ago.
The news has been welcomed by the industry, which is still smarting after last year’s decision by the Intellectual Property Office of NZ (IPONZ) commissioner, who ruled against NZ honey producers’ efforts to protect the term “mānuka honey”.
This meant the term “mānuka honey” could not be used as a certification mark in NZ and reinforced Australian opposition to use of the word. NZ had also appealed against a United Kingdom decision made on similar grounds, having initially been granted trademark protection there.
Karin Kos, CEO of Apiculture NZ, said the genetic testing reinforced the long-standing view held by NZ producers that mānuka honey from here is distinctly different.
“This is just building up that anecdotal view with more evidence. The belief has always been we had to demonstrate NZ mānuka was a lot more distinctive, and this is the proof. It is a good step in the right direction.”
Manawatū honey producer Jason Prior of Downunder Honey, who is a member of the UMF Honey Association, said the genetic results gave the industry valuable pushback material, and possible new legal grounds to knock back Australian claims.
“We have already seen that the law is not set up to protect trademark genetic terms. For example the European Union prefers made-up words, like ‘Fonterra’, for example, and we have had problems trademarking terms like ‘mānuka’.”
The research paper was authored by Plant & Food Research scientists along with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research. It identified nine family clusters in NZ matching different geographic regions, and two clusters in Tasmania.
The NZ clusters were more closely related than those found in Australia. The differences in genetic profiles suggested the two groups of mānuka diverged 9-12 million years ago, a period Prior likened to the difference between chimp and human evolution.
The research was funded by Te Pitau Ltd, the operating arm of the Mānuka Charitable Trust, Plant & Food, and the Department of Conservation.
It was published in Springer Nature, and was reviewed by three independent overseas experts.
The study reinforces earlier Plant & Food work that determined there was a difference between NZ and Australian trees.
Mānuka Charitable Trust chair Pita Tipene said the results support what iwi have maintained throughout the debate.
“Mānuka is recognised taonga (treasure) under the Treaty of Waitangi, and its honey can only be sourced from and produced in Aotearoa NZ.
“The expropriation of the name ‘mānuka honey’ to a plant or natural product from outside NZ is taking the identity and associated epistemology of our culture, our knowledge and what we know and believe,” he said.
He said in addition it ignores the original names given to the Australian plants by their aboriginal people.
Prior said the news is “quite rosy”, coming at a time when the EU free trade agreement is about to kick off, possibly as early as April.
The EU agreement specifies Māori food and beverage operators can develop, protect and leverage their own Geographic Indicators for quality NZ products exported to the EU.
This is specifically to protect Māori names for products where the name signifies a unique characteristic attributable to the product’s geographical origin within NZ.
“In a year or so it is likely this will have ramifications for other markets, and will likely set a precedent other markets like the UK cannot ignore.”
Labelling requirements for the EU would likely mean UK products would have the same treatment.
“We will have to see how it impacts mānuka legally, but I suspect unless companies label it as ‘NZ mānuka’ you cannot call it ‘mānuka’ in the EU.”