Manuka. A $1B industry by 2025

Posted on March 31, 2014

Manuka Forestry, for honey and oil production, has a bright future for New Zealand.

At a recent forum in Masterton, Dr Peter Molan, the pioneer of Manuka honey research, gave an illuminating presentation on the medicinal power of Manuka honey through its unique property of Methyl Glyoxol (MGO), a long lasting anti bacterial enzyme, not known to occur in any other honey in the world.

Dr Molan showed a number of graphic slides of the healing effect on serious bodily wounds after treatment with Manuka honey. He predicted that as bacterial super bugs become more resistant to antibiotics, that Manuka honey will become the wonder drug to fight such infections. He showed slides of experiments of the effects on bacterial infections comparing honey from many different plant species which had the Hydrogen Peroxide activity deactivated. Hydrogen Peroxide is a short term anti bacterial enzyme found in honey of many different plant species. Only the Manuka honey, with its unique MGO compound, was able to kill the bacteria.

Further discussion surrounded the value chain from what the forestry owner has traditionally received, to the average yield and value of the different activity levels of honey, to the processed export value, to the wholesale and retail values. Typically the forestry owner is receiving around 10-20% ($50-$100 per hive) of the value of the honey sold by the beekeeper. The highest retail price seen for medicinal grade Manuka honey was $700 per kg in a health shop in Hong Kong. This is truly liquid gold.

Much discussion concentrated around current research studies involving identification of high MGO yielding plants through the testing of the nectar (DHA levels) on flowering plants, planting densities, forest management, planting to first flowering, plant selection and breeding, carbon credits, Manuka oil extraction from foliage, site poaching and other economic factors affecting Manuka forestry.

The current value of New Zealand honey exports is approx $145m. The government has set an export target of $1B by year 2025.

The key component to achieving the $1B in annual exports, is the urgent need for more area to be planted in Manuka forest. The current estimated area of approx. 900,000ha of Manuka forestry in production is largely the result of Supplementary Minimum Prices (SMP’s) being removed on sheep, beef and wool back in 1984, which made traditional farming on marginal land unprofitable. A large portion of this area is on Maori owned land.

Manuka has a natural life span of 25-50 years, due to the fact that it is a ‘pioneer’ species which provides a protective environment for larger tree species to establish and replace the Manuka forest after a few years. The danger with the Manuka industry is that much of this forest is already 30 years old and there has been little attempt to increase, manage or replace the plantings since the mid 1980’s.

There was some discussion on the fraudulent advertising of activity in other honeys, which is in fact a measurement of the Hydrogen Peroxide content not the MGO content. A proposal was bought forward to trademark the word Manuka for use only by certified Manuka honey producers based in New Zealand. The idea was to replicate the Champagne trademark which can now only be used for sparkling wine from the French district of Champagne. This may or may not be possible due to the fact that Manuka has been used as a marketing name for many years already.

From what is known about the Manuka industry to date, the cost to plant 1ha is approx $1800 per ha including plants plus labour to plant. The planting rate is 1250 plants per ha.
A blanket herbicide spray is applied to the full site 1-2 months prior to planting. One year after planting, a blanket release spray of selective herbicides should be applied over the plants.
Pests include hares, goats and deer. These need to be controlled for the first 3 years of the crop.
The first honey harvest begins in year 3 with maximum honey yields occurring from year 8 onwards. The honey yield per ha is currently estimated at 25-50kg per ha and the average price to the beekeeper at present is $20-$25 per kg. This works out at $500-$1000 income from honey per ha. Hive stocking rate is approx 1 hive per ha.

Honey income is affected by the climatic conditions of the season affecting nectar flow and bee activity, by the Methyl Glyoxly activity (MGO) levels of the honey, by the age of the Manuka forest, and by the density of the Manuka forest.

MGO levels increase over a 12-18 month period and most beekeepers store their honey until the MGO levels reach their peak. There must be a lot of trust between the forester and the beekeeper if the contract is based on a share of the honey value.

A key issue for Manuka forestors is the need for a transparent system that tracks the weight and value of the honey from the hive to sale to a wholesaler.This is especially so if the forestor is being paid a share of the value of the Manuka honey harvested from his property.

The Manuka forester can also benefit from carbon credits or from pruning the plants and selling the prunings to Manuka oil extractors at a current price of $500-$600 per tonne.
A Manuka forest can continue to grow indefinitely so long as it is kept free of plant species that colonise Manuka forests.Gorse does not need to be eradicated as it is a complementary species that provides pollen for bee brood.

Financial subsidies and grants are available for forestry establishment through several Regional Councils, MPI, Nga Whenua Rahui, and in particular, the East Coast Forestry Project.There is the possibility to increase the income per ha, by higher density planting and growing the plants in hedgerows, keeping the hedgerows pruned, which results in better flowering and selling the pruning’s to oil extractors.

As the value of Manuka honey increases, so too is the capital value of marginal land planted in Manuka forestry.

By Andrew Wearmouth