Manuka Trust’s Plan of Attack

A December ruling from the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) against New Zealand interests to trademark the term “manuka honey” was analogous to the loss of a battle, but not the war, say those leading Aotearoa’s fight. Despite only six months in the role of executive director of Te Pitau Ltd, which acts as the operating arm of the Mānuka Charitable Trust (MCT), Kristen Kohere-Soutar explains to editor Patrick Dawkins that their work is aimed longer term than just the UK decision and that the next six months will be focused on setting up infrastructure to survive a long-running “war”.

The UK IPO’s rejection of New Zealand’s certification trademark attempt into the third largest market for Kiwi honey exporters stings for the MCT and Te Pitau, whereas the Australian Manuka Honey Association – which led the opposition – are delighted with the ruling which means they can still brand their honey as “manuka”.

Pita Tipene, chair of the Manuka Charitable Trust.

Paul Callander, chairman of the Australian Association, has called the decision “right” and “fair” while MCT Chair Pita Tipene has reaffirmed the Trust’s position that it is anything but.

“This is an indigenous rights issue and is out of step with existing indigenous IP frameworks,” Tipene says.

“Manuka is our Māori reo (language) and a precious taonga (treasure) that we must honour and protect. This ruling ignores the role of iwi as kaitiaki (guardians) and is insulting to Māori and our culture.”

Adding salt into that wound was the ruling also awarded costs to the victorious Australia producers, although Kohere-Soutar says the yet to be confirmed amount will “not be significant in the scheme of things”.

The fight won’t stop here though and a ruling for a similar case in front of New Zealand’s IPO, which again pits the New Zealand and Australian groups against each other, is expected to be announced at some point this year. Then there are other key markets for manuka honey where MCT has commenced action to pursue certification trademarks, such as the United States and China.

Not only did the the UK IPO rule in favour of the Australian challenge but they were also awarded costs.

If the right to secure exclusive use of the words “manuka honey” for Kiwi producers is a war and not just a battle, what are the tactics that will guide MCT’s advance?

Caring Collaboration

Regardless of what way the ruling out of the UK went, the first half of 2022 was always going to shape as a key period for Te Pitau in solidifying their operational work for the MCT in New Zealand. Since replacing Victor Goldsmith as executive director in July, Kohere-Soutar says her focus has been shared between implementing their legal strategy, improving Te Pitau’s operating procedures and also the not-so-small task of bringing together government, industry and iwi interests.

“We are leading a collaboration between all people who care and have concern for manuka,” Kohere-Soutar says.

For beekeepers their concern for manuka will obviously centre around the high-value honey the native plant is critical to producing. However, while the protection of the term “manuka honey” is crucial to Te Pitau’s work, there is also a larger role they play in protecting Māori language and taonga. For these reasons, Māori governance of MCT and Te Pitau is seen as essential to success.

Kristen Kohere-Soutar, executive chair of Te Piatu Ltd.

Inclusive Ideals

“It is the responsibility of the Trust to ensure the protection and preservation of manuka as a taonga and that it remains unique and authentic to us. Us being New Zealanders,” says Kohere-Soutar, who resides in Gisborne and whakapapas back to local iwi Ngati Porou, as well as several South Island hapu.

“The Trust’s beneficiaries are all New Zealanders, not just Māori. The governance is with Māori though because the Māori ontological world view holds the right values and intent to carry out this mission on behalf of all of us. That is not to say others, who do not whakapapa Māori, cannot align to it and be a part of it. It is just being led by a Māori culture that can define what that looks like and put up frameworks for our direction.

“It is not exclusive, it is inclusive,” she explains.

Kohere-Soutar also reinforces the point made by Tipene, as MCT chair when the UK decision was handed down, that this is about controlling the appropriation of an indigenous language.

“Decades of activism that have sought to ensure the culture that goes with the word is preserved. The interest of iwi and Māori entities are that manuka should not be misused, misrepresented or misappropriated and is a responsibility within Māori culture to ensure this. The governance in place here is specifically referred to as “guardians” of the term manuka honey and the taonga species,” Kohere-Soutar says.

Industry, Iwi and Communication

Engaging and working alongside iwi is going to be critical for MCT and Te Pitau as they seek to represent the Māori interest. That process began with a series of 10 hui last year, held from Kaitaia to Christchurch, which the executive director says were “well received and productive”.

“It's always going to be about listening to each other’s point of view and understanding where everybody's coming from. I think the engagement hui were helpful to get started on that process. It is not the be all and end all of consultation and engagement though.”

On that note, going into 2022 improving communications with both iwi and the apiculture industry is a major focus of Te Pitau, alongside the ongoing legal programme and science and research work into manuka honey to underpin trademark claims.

The establishment of two sub committees, one legal to oversee the day-to-day decision making, and the other an “industry advisory group” will be crucial to implementing Te Pitau’s plans going forward.

A promotional slide from Manuka Charitable Trust which shows the structure and relationship between it, Te Pitau and various working groups, as well as their key purpose.

“That industry group has a direct line to the executive chair and the board and is intended to be a representative group of industry members. That forum would be the primary initiative to be able to share key communications, messages and information across the industry. It aims to build appreciation and engagement between the Trust and industry”

Appointees to the industry advisory group will likely come on the recommendation of current industry partners to MCT and Te Pitau, namely Apiculture New Zealand, Manuka Honey Appellation Society the UMF Honey Association and corporate honey companies Mānuka Health, Comvita, Oha Honey and Manuka Doctor.

Closer ties to industry, as well as wider stakeholders, will also be a goal of a fresh communications strategy which will look to incorporate greater digital communication with stakeholders, through a website and social media. Currently the Trust’s website, www.mct.nz, consists of one page which is “under construction”.

“We would like everybody to be able to go onto the website and read about the mahi of the Charitable Trust and to get an update on the legal proceedings and how we're tracking,” Kohere-Soutar explains.

Manuka honey, the backbone of New Zealand's honey industry.

Scientific Strategy

So, while beekeepers can expect to hear more out of MCT and Te Pitau regarding their ongoing toil on behalf of the manuka honey industry, it is battle wins New Zealander’s really want to learn of, not setbacks like the UK IPO ruling.

To that end, Te Pitau is overseeing a science programme into manuka honey. This work is being carried out in conjunction with Ministry for Primary Industries’ ongoing manuka honey research and is funded through a $4 million grant from Government announced in 2019. Kohere-Soutar says that fund is so large because of the need to deepen the science of manuka honey generally, but they also hope it can provide an effective weapon in their arsenal.

“The science programs specifically focus on what science is needed to authenticate and define manuka honey, and then enable us to articulate that in various intellectual property offices around the world with our certification trademark strategy,” she says.

Calling on Contributions

Up until this point MCT and Te Pitau’s work on their various fronts has been funded by a mix of Government grants and loans, plus industry support. August saw Te Pitau call a gathering of 24 honey companies to explain their position and they have received ongoing financial support from the honey industry through some of those companies.

“We are mindful of not putting our hands into the pockets of our smaller beekeeper outfits though,” Kohere-Soutar says.

“The natural question has been, ‘what can the larger companies do first?’. We would certainly be open to anyone who wants to contribute though and would be pleased to receive funding from anyone, no matter how large or small.

“Once we get our communications more organised, our website up, then we will be able to reach out in a more orderly fashion. I don’t want to reach out too far now, when we are still trying to get communications up and running because I want to be consistent with what we are saying and have a system to engage their perspective, given the myriad of people who are interested.”

Same Boat, Same Direction

While the legal stoushes ahead loom large, both in New Zealand with the IPO case finding due in 2022 and in other strategic markets of the world – which may include a fresh approach in the UK – so too does massaging the myriad of interests in New Zealand.

It may not prove easy to please all the stakeholders all the time, but Te Pitau’s executive chair is confident they will be doing a better job of working alongside the beekeeping industry and communicating their strategies going forward. Add to that working with the interests of Māori across the country, as they seek to protect the reo and taonga, as well as their dealings with Government and you can see why MCT and Te Pitau have their sights set on the big picture of defeating overseas producers and packers who see manuka honey as their own, and not just the one-off stoushes.

“We've got to take the long game, because it's a unique model that we're trying to achieve for the country. We are new and have a blend of interests, it's always going to be about listening to each other’s point of view and understanding where everybody's coming from,” Kohere-Soutar says, before calling on one of the guiding principles of the MCT. “It is about trying to get in the same boat going in the same direction. We can’t do that with disunity, we can only do it with unity.”


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