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  • Writer's pictureSri Govindaraju

Why Can't We Move Away from a Jar of Mānuka Honey?

APIARIST’S OPINION: SRI GOVINDARAJU

The Experiment Company is brining innovation to honey research, and founding director Sri Govindaraju is challenging the apiculture industry to think deeply about the challenges in front of mānuka honey and how real innovation can be best nurtured to overcome them.

The honey industry and, more specifically, mānuka honey is certainly a sticky hot mess right now; with the latest result of the mānuka honey trademark application being turned down on our own turf, making it very unappealing and unsexy. How did we get here?

We all undoubtedly celebrate the growth that the mānuka honey industry has experienced in the last couple of decades, from grassroots level to making us leaders in the global honey sector.

The anti-bacterial discovery in mānuka honey is one of the top innovations in our industry. Dr Peter Molan of Waikato University, a prominent biochemist, started his research to find out the potential of mānuka honey in the 1980s and discovered the antimicrobial activity in the honey. His preliminary research set the foundation for what would eventually lead to one of New Zealand’s most commonly used rating systems, Unique Mānuka Factor (UMF).

Another significant discovery in our industry is by Dr. Thomas Henle of Dresden University, Germany, who discovered the unique bioactive ingredient methylglyoxal (MGO). Both ratings, UMF and MGO have contributed to the growth of our mānuka honey export industry. Leading on from these discoveries, one would think that we would have churned out more research, and innovative applications of honey, yet we seem to have, pretty much, plateaued.

I concur that there has been heavy investment made by companies like, Comvita, Mānuka Med and Mānuka Health in exploring more about our native honeys. Though they may have made some inroads, we haven’t had any significant breakthroughs in how else this wonderful honey can be applied and used. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today, troubled with not being able to shift the bulk of our honey from the warehouses.

The Experiment Company science team in the lab. Founder Sunil Pinnamaneni, right, along with lead scientist Dr Swapna Gannabathula, centre, and Ye Liu.

Sure, there are some punters who have dabbled in combining two or more New Zealand grown high value ingredients, and calling it product development. Honey is mixed with propolis, ginseng, chocolate or spices to entice wider audiences, but can we really call that novel innovation? It may have created a small window of opportunity, but is it ground-breaking enough where an entire industry’s future can be secured?

Let’s take a look at other primary sectors who have adapted themselves to the changing tide of consumer’s needs globally. The dairy, plant based milks, and meat industries, with the new disruptive precision fermentation technology, are constantly evolving, changing and inventing new products, not only suited to the consumer’s needs but also driven by the need to address climate change and securing the planet’s future. Sure, some are more successful than others, yet the failed products teach us what we could do better next time. New trends in these sectors seem to pass one another before we even realise that it was a thing!

What has not changed however, in more than a decade, is our New Zealand honey industry and, more specifically, our mānuka honey growers. There is a strong need for the industry to diversify its honey sector, away from our total economic dependence on mānuka or honey alone in a jar/bottle and toward a more sustainable future with different honey applications. In a recent NZTE quarterly market report it was identified across the six markets reviewed for mānuka honey, the market is saturated in its current format and current consumers. And this perhaps can be shifted with new investments, product formats and product innovation.

David ‘Doc’ O’Connor, a major investor in TEC’s kanuka honey research, chats with scientists Swapna Gannabathula and Ye Liu.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. It is evident that we need to do something different. We need a fresh new approach to solving our problems for a more secure future. It may sound all doom and gloom, however I can reassure you it is not.

We can turn this around by investing in research and development, finding novel product applications, scaling up and commercialising it. The sooner we accept that innovation plays a critical role in the future prosperity of the honey industry, only then can we move forward to formulating a strategy and securing opportunities for New Zealand in the global honey space. The questions we need to ask; is this important? Is this relevant? Can this be transferrable? Can it be scaled? How much impact will this create? Will this contribute to securing the industry’s future? Not all innovations are the same and nor will all be successful. The ones that didn’t work out will be the paving stone to only getting better.

When we started The Experiment Company, we wanted to play a part in creating conversations about what else can be done with New Zealand native honeys, not just mānuka. When we think of innovation, it has to be something lead with a purpose, where you are not only uplifting the primary industry itself but an entire supply chain, whilst creating secondary and tertiary industries generating revenue streams.

Whether the R&D is done together as a collective or individual companies is the million-dollar question. I want to reiterate that we in New Zealand have immense talent, be it in the universities or small start-ups like ours, working tirelessly to demonstrate possibilities, economic opportunities in exploring the science, manipulating the good stuff in it, so that we can secure our future in this industry.

The points I want to drive home are; think about our children and the future generations, what will globalization look like in 20-30 years? What challenges will consumers face in terms of their core dietary needs including health; will they have more diverse preferences? What role will tech play in honey? How will the climate events and geopolitical shocks affect decision making? How will the existing markets evolve both in terms of population and wealth and how will the growth markets take shape, namely Asia and Africa? Can we piggy back on the adaptations, and successes of other primary sectors? Closer to home, can we contribute to food resilience, equity and security here in Aotearoa?

A fabric will stand the test of time depending on the quality of the fibres used and how well the threads are woven together. We as producers, exporters and researchers of honey share a common responsibility to strengthen the fabric of Aotearoa New Zealand, and ultimately the choice is yours, you need to pick one and run with it. In this country we pride ourselves for having the number-8 wire mentality. What are we waiting for?

Sri Govindaraju is the founding director of food research lab The Experiment Company, as well as Taupō­­-based honey exporter Zealandia Honey, and has worked in the honey and science industries since 2016.


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