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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Industry Leaders Weigh in on Honey Strategy

The New Zealand Honey Strategy 2024-2030 announced on February 20 touches on many areas of beekeeping and honey selling and is set to influence all in the apiculture industry. We dive deeper into what it could mean to different sectors of apiculture with some of the industry’s leaders.

Karin Kos presents the Honey Strategy at The Beehive in Wellington last month.

Karin Kos – Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) chief executive

Karin Kos has been chief executive of ApiNZ since its inception in 2016, meaning she has already seen one attempt at a commodity levy fail. “Now is the time to do something” she says and 2024 looks set to be a year where, guided by the Honey Strategy, much of her time will be spent fleshing out the model which a mānuka honey export levy and fresh industry body can operate through.

“We want to be able to go to industry and consult with a strategy, but to also say what the platforms are which might come out of that strategy,” Kos says.

“Having a strawman’s industry organisation and asking what is the best structure? What is the best funding model? That piece of work needs to happen and that is what we need to go out to our industry with. That still needs some work and needs some independent advice. That is the sort of thing we need to get on and do with some of the funding we will, hopefully, get.”

The strategy points to government funding to support set up costs for a new industry body. Ongoing funding would come through a mānuka honey levy.

“It’s an export levy, borne by exporters and that is where we see the first funding coming from.”

As for other levies, Kos says that is nothing but speculation.

“In the strategy we have some thinking [on wider industry issues], based around the feedback we got from the industry-engagement process, but there is a long way to go yet. We have to get ourselves organised. The priority for this year is to get a proposed structure in place and take it out to engage with the sector.”

She calls the Strategy presented “a combination of systemic analysis of the apiculture industry and the engagement we had with the industry in meetings we had around the country” and despite calls from New Zealand Beekeeping Inc (NZBI) for further discussions and adaptations to the strategy prior to release, that was never part of the plan.

“The process was always going to be to put together a document using the evidence gathered. The suggestion of a second round of consultation, once the document was written, was never part of the process. We do have a plan, it may not be perfect, but we have some urgency to get going and get something done. That is what the industry needs and wants. That is the next step. We will flesh out some of the detail around what’s the structure, what’s the enabling legislation we might need to gain funding to deliver that, then go out through our national industry summit and a roadshow, to our members and industry, to discuss that.”

As for other issues introduced in the strategy, such as a Government Industry Agreement (GIA) on biosecurity, introducing varroa management into a National Pest Management Plan, or a decarbonisation plan for apiculture, they are not the immediate priority Kos reinforces.

“We will be directed by getting organisational models and funding structures sorted first. We don’t want to go too far down the track until that is sorted because it will direct the thinking on the other stuff. Realistically – despite being priorities in the strategy – they are still some time off.”

Nathan Guy – ApiNZ independent chair

“If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less. That is something the honey industry should be very aware of,” Nathan Guy warns.

While failed honey levies might be in apiculture’s past, Nathan Guy’s view is firmly forward-facing and the Honey Strategy is a pivotal point on the road he believes the industry needs to travel.

“This is a living document. We may not have everything right for everyone in the industry, but in my view it is a bloody good starting point to create the discussions we need to have. Now is not the time to look over shoulders, now is the time to look forward,” Guy says.

Having been in his role with ApiNZ for 18 months now, he is “pretty confident” they can get the money required to advance their plans for a mandated industry body. Discussions with MPI, UMFHA, and the Mānuka Charitable Trust as to funding have already began.

“Any legislative change will take two to three years and is a medium-term proposition” Guy points out.

“We realise it is tough times for beekeepers and that is why some have jumped on some of the levy options in the strategy and wrongly believe they are going to have to cough up immediately and that is not the case at all. We are mindful it is very tough times and the cost on beekeepers right through the supply chain is difficult. The first approach is to work with those three groups and start on the low hanging fruit, build momentum, build confidence in the strategy, and then go hard to implement it.”

As for NZBI’s concerns, he is not willing to take them seriously and says he is disappointed in their “emotive language”.

“We discussed these issues with NZ Beekeeping Inc. That this was export levy focused, that we are not looking to levy or tax beekeepers. I was very clear on all of that with our discussions.”

There is a strong need for a new form of revenue to implement the industry-good proposals set out in the strategy and beekeepers should embrace the changes, Guy believes.

“If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less. That is something the honey industry should be very aware of.”

Jane Lorimer – New Zealand Beekeeping Inc president

NZBI president Jane Lorimer has concerns for the costs which the new Honey Strategy might impose on beekeepers if fully implemented.

NZBI were immediately unimpressed with the strategy and president Jane Lorimer, herself an owner-beekeeper of Hillcrest Apiaries in the Waikato, is concerned there was not more consultation with beekeeping groups.

“They conducted an initial roadshow fairly well and got reasonable feedback from beekeepers, although I do understand that differed from area to area. From then we never saw anything until we saw their draft document on February 12,” Lorimer says.

That was eight days before the official Strategy release. 

“The only ones I know who had input as an industry group were UMFHA. That is primarily because, following our discussions with them, they were keen to have an export levy to increase the exports of mānuka. They either didn’t know or didn’t care about the rest of the document.”

While only a “Horticulture Export Authority-type” (HEA) levy is specifically mentioned in the strategy document, Lorimer says they are concerned there could be at least four “other” levies on the table based off what is outlined.

“This document is such that we think it should be sunk and start again and based off the information they got from the initial consultation round, so we can find out what was discussed at each of those meetings to get an overall feel for what people thought to be the perceived issues for each sector of the industry. We then need to sit around the table as a full industry group to discuss whether we agree that those are the issues and where we should go to address them,” Lorimer says.

“There is no detail, no costings, no timeline to do things. So, at the moment we just see it as a wish list. Until you get detail around it and more input from beekeepers it is just wishful.”

Regarding a mānuka honey export levy, Lorimer believes it will ultimately be borne by the honey producers.

“An export levy is still going to affect beekeepers. Exporters will just take that off their price offered to beekeepers for their product.”

NZBI are not opposed to an export levy in principle, but they want to be involved in shaping any proposal and Lorimer says, until there is more detail, they can’t say whether they will support an “HEA-type levy”

“It sounds like it still operates under something similar to a commodity levy, so there would still have to be industry buy-in to the whole thing before it is approved and could go ahead. It would depend on how the whole proposal is put forward.

“What is in the document is so big it could put beekeepers out of business if they have to pay four or five levies. If it had just been a proposal to get the industry moving in a positive direction again by putting an export levy in place, we might have been in favour of an export levy, depending on the structure. But, should it be on mānuka only? I don’t think so. It should also be looking to move our other honeys.”

What’s the future of the Honey Strategy and an export levy on mānuka honey in Lorimer’s eyes? She’s already on the record saying the Strategy “needs to be taken out to sea and sunk”. Whether that happens or not, NZBI want to be more closely involved in any plans going forward.

“Whether it will get as far as a vote I am not sure, because we have pushed for – and I think MPI are in agreement – that we need a round-table discussion to determine whether this strategy goes ahead as is, whether it is thrown out, or changed again.”

Tony Wright – Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) chief executive, and ApiNZ board member for market sector.

Those in the mānuka honey supply chain, but who fall outside of UMFHA, have been getting a “free ride” for side time the association’s chief executive Tony Wright says.

While beekeeper consultation might have formed much of the early thinking on the Honey Strategy, discussions between ApiNZ, UMFHA and associated honey exporters have given the strategy much of its final shape. Tony Wright has therefore been heavily involved.

From the perspective of UMFHA – who hold the heavy majority of New Zealand’s mānuka honey exporters among their levy-paying membership – the Honey Strategy and a HEA-type model for exporters has two key benefits. Firstly, it outlines an approach for “formalising what we have been doing voluntarily through UMF for the last 25-odd years”, Wright says. Secondly, it means all mānuka honey exporters would be required to fund industry-good work, much of which has been conducted through UMFHA’s voluntary membership up until now.

“We really love the idea that, within the strategy, there is a way to formalise how you would have a standards regime to ensure that product going in to the markets is meeting consistent standards for quality. That is the basis for why UMF was started in the first place. It is a standards organisation at heart,” Wright says.

UMFHA members pay a levy per unit of mānuka honey sold, which gives them the right to display the UMF brand and rating on their honey, should they meet the association’s standards.

“We think all product leaving New Zealand should be of the same standard and quality so the consumer experience of mānuka honey in the markets shouldn’t be left up to the brands themselves. There should be a common standard across the industry.”

While they have got close to achieving that with UMF, the voluntary model “leaves some gaps” which MPI and New Zealand Food Safety’s standards don’t meet and thus the honey industry should take on.

“I don’t think anyone has a concern about the safety of product leaving New Zealand. It is more about what the consumer experience is and, are we protecting our reputation overseas?” Wright says.

In practicality that means compositional standards, labelling standards, guidelines about how the New Zealand honey story is expressed on packaging and how the connection back to culture is told while recognising mānuka as a taonga species of Māori, Wright points out.

“There is a whole bunch of things we need to tidy up and get some consistency around … We don’t want anyone letting us down from a reputational point of view.”

And as for the money…

“At the moment the UMF model is those that licence the use of the UMF trademark pay a levy on the basis of the product they sell. That is a model that has been shown to work and if we could make that an enforceable model across all of the product being exported, not just the product going out with the UMF mark on it, but if all mānuka honey was contributing into a levy type of arrangement, similar to UMF, then happy days. Everyone would be paying their fair share.

“We are putting money into improving the category, but only those who are members of the UMFHA are paying their fair share towards that work. Yet, the broader industry is getting benefit for it. We think it is time that got cleaned up.”

A wider levy could end up lightening the financial load on UMFHA members, but Wright says it is far too early to speculate on whether this would be the case. The same goes for the role of the UMF brand in any export standard, but Wright says use of it is “not a deal breaker” in any arrangement. 

“A good discussion to come in the future is, maybe everyone should be lining up behind a common visual standard which consumers recognise. I don’t think it needs to be part of the consideration matrix just now though.”

While the levy proposed would be paid by mānuka honey exporters, beekeepers have already expressed concern this cost would be handed on to honey producers. However, Wright says that may not necessarily be the case as those “who are already in the UMF supply chain” have long been subject to a levy of sorts, through UMFHA, on their honey’s road to market. For those outside the UMF supply model, it could be different, but Wright says, “to be frank, they have been getting a free ride for a long time anyway”.

Having a foot in both the ApiNZ and UMFHA camp Wright will continue to be heavily involved in progressing the strategy. He offers a succinct view of the plan of attack as he sees it.

“Implementing enforceable standards and an enforceable levy are absolute no-brainers which we need to be executing with priority in the short term. Then, once we have got that sorted, we can turn our attention to some of the other things, such as what our approach should be to broader research and development in the production centre, bee health and biosecurity. There are ideas in the strategy about how to do some of that stuff, but we are a long way from firming that up. There has been some concern about all of that turning to extra costs, but that is a bit premature. We don’t actually know what any of that needs to look like yet. If we can focus on getting the fundamentals right from the export side of things, then when all of that is ticking along we will have the financial engine-room to enable the other stuff to be looked at with a bit more rigor.”


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