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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Avoiding the March of the Folly

“We certainly agree something must be done, but the fact this is something, doesn’t mean it must be done,” New Zealand Beekeeping Inc (NZBI) adviser Ian Fletcher summarises their position on the Honey Industry Strategy 2024-30 put forward by fellow industry groups. So, what is their something? We sit down with NZBI president Jane Lorimer and Fletcher to discern what they believe needs to happen, now, to best advance apiculture in New Zealand.

Ian Fletcher.

NZBI have oft been at odds with strategy authors Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) since both national beekeeping representative groups formed in 2016. In 2019 they were instrumental in consolidating beekeeper support against a failed honey levy proposal. In 2024 the latest strategy for the industry, released by ApiNZ in February, was immediately denounced by NZBI and recent discussions of the Strategy at the Industry Summit in Hamilton were written off before they began.

With ApiNZ and Strategy partners the Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) setting out a timeline of further industry engagement, followed by a potential merger of their two groups and new mānuka honey export rules in the next six to 12 months, they are not appearing to heed the NZBI warnings though.

In the NZBI leaders’ eyes, there are two important next steps which ApiNZ and UMFHA need to take to best provide for beekeepers – firstly, set more realistic timeframes for actions, and also accept the complexity of the industry and problems faced, which predicates the need for more transparent and industry-wide consultation.

It’s Complicated…

“What’s our basic argument?” Fletcher asks rhetorically.

“We are looking at a complex economic ecology that includes mānuka honey, non-mānuka honey, pollination, and then ancillary services like queen raising and package bees for export, each of which is a supply chain by itself. All built off honey bees, all built off beekeeping skills and the beekeeping infrastructure, such as the supply companies, those who service the trucks, and beekeeping staff. It’s a complex set of supply chains and the issues the industry faces are complicated as well – the economics of higher costs and low prices, the economics of increasingly protectionist overseas markets.

“It’s a complex industry and the solution being offered is a simplistic one.”

That “simplistic” solution to Fletcher’s mind being the merger, of sorts, between ApiNZ and UMFHA, with a levy on mānuka honey as it leaves the country, as has been proposed.

“Their thinking appears to be ‘we can’t make the current system pay, so we will make it compulsory’. But that ignores pollination, that ignores biosecurity, it ignores non-mānuka producers,” Fletcher says.

Jane Lorimer.

Carrying on down this path, with the agenda and timeline which ApiNZ propose is akin to a ‘March of the Folly’, where a government advances an agenda despite knowing it is the wrong thing, Fletcher warns.

So, Let’s Talk…?

“I still think they need to start from the basics, of what they found in the initial consultation they did two and a half years ago, and update it,” Lorimer says of the Strategy, which is underpinned by beekeeper meetings in 2022.

“The consultation has worked from the top, down to beekeepers. They actually need to bring beekeepers along on a journey to where they want to go. A quick fix is not a good idea. You will put the producers, the beekeepers, offside by saying ‘this is what we are going to do, come hell or high water, this is where we are going to go’.”

Going forward, NZBI would like to see a greater level of transparency in consultation meetings, with a wider-range of industry groups and stakeholders taking part. They envisage open-door meetings with seats filled by themselves, ApiNZ, UMFHA, the Mānuka Charitable Trust, Southern North Island Beekeeping Group, and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

There needs to be full transparency around the consultation, unlike what has taken place thus far, they believe.

“Genuine accountability and real-time accountability as you go along”, is what would result from such conversations, Fletcher says.

“The underpinning concern is, we all know the industry has some big problems, and we all know not everyone is going to like every answer, because we are all grownups, but what we don’t have to tolerate is a bad process where people run away with the ball. Getting the process right will get the result accepted,” he says.

Such meetings would need to be tailored to various issues, and have regional focuses due to the varying complexities in beekeeping businesses in different areas of the country, the pair believe.

“People need visibility of the process, so there isn’t the sense of a rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The way you would frame that is, acknowledging there are absolutely issues around mānuka honey, other honeys, pollination, biosecurity and by having meetings by topic, and by region,” Fletcher says.

“The rabbit out of the hat approach is dangerous as it disempowers groups. It gives those responsible for the rabbit too much power and they are tempted to talk their own book – which is what we have seen – and simplify the complex.”

What’s the Time?

Going back to the drawing board, or at least taking steps closer to it, is not an approach being advanced by ApiNZ, but they do say the Strategy is “a living document”. Their view appears firmly focused on moving forward with what they have proposed.

“They could be more realistic and transparent about how very much in the beginning their thinking actually is,” Fletcher says.

“This [strategy] looks like an answer, but it is a sketch plan, not a fully worked out drawing … If you are running out of money, you do something quick.”

In Fletcher’s experience – having headed government departments in New Zealand and Australia, and held high-level trade roles in the UK and Europe – the ApiNZ timeframes to implement Strategy ideas are unrealistic when considering their need for legislative change.

“I know these things are quite complicated and there is a series of steps that you have to take. The Cabinet manual sets it out. There is no legislation in progress and it would take six months, minimum, to get to draft legislation, even if MPI decided to get going on Monday,” he says.

That means, NZBI believe, there is time for a greater level of more transparent consultation with all the industry, which could be undertaken in the next six to 10 months.

Hoping to be Heard

So, while the two national beekeeping representative groups have differing opinions on what is the best approach to get to a meaningful strategy, and how much time the industry has to do it, the whole of industry is at risk of losing if they can’t find common ground.

“The solution must match the something. Something doesn’t mean anything. What we have ended up with is an anything,” Fletcher surmises.

“The failure to face up to how big, diverse and complex the beekeeping sector in New Zealand is, or are, and to think there is a single, simple question with a single, simple answer is misleading and disempowering. I think beekeepers deserve better than that.”

Beekeepers might deserve better than the current state of play, but a question-mark looms not only over the best result in industry leaders’ eyes, but simply the process to be followed to make anything happen.


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