Since the 1820s, Australia has been quietly producing manuka honey, a natural product with proven medicinal benefits most often associated with New Zealand.
Now, our small but arguably superior manuka product, represented by the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), is about to get a substantial market boost.
On 10 March 2018, federal government Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud announced a grant of AU$165,000 grant to help Australia's manuka honey producers and exporters raise awareness of the origins and unique qualities of their product.
The grant money, to be delivered as part of the Agricultural Trade and Market Access Cooperation (ATMAC) program under the government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, will be used by Australia’s manuka industry “to support activities that address emerging issues in international markets and share manuka-honey production methods overseas”, Minister Littleproud said.
“International markets are buzzing over manuka honey, creating real opportunities for our producers,” he said. “This funding will support the spread of Australian manuka honey to the medical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and nutraceutical markets.
“Industry will be able to share the unique properties of Australian-produced manuka honey; develop a series of materials, including a website; and visit key markets to share production knowledge.
“These visits are also a great opportunity to promote the origins of Australian manuka honey, which may open the door to an increased market share for its producers.”
Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck noted that Australia has a long history of producing manuka honey dating back to the 1930s, starting with leptospermum plants originating in Tasmania. “This funding ... provides important support in reinforcing our place in a unique, valuable and high-demand global market,” Senator Colbeck said.
Fellow Tasmanian Senator David Bushby, who declared Australian-produced manuka honey “the best in the world”, hopes the grant will help the industry “to evolve, as well as promote its traditional honey in a jar”, and that the injection of funds “will not only have a positive impact on jobs and the local economy, but also our environment”.
The long history of Australian manuka honey
Manuka honey is produced by bees from the flowers of ‘manuka plants’, or Leptospermum species, initially described by Johann Forster in 1776.
Native to Australia, with many endemic species of manuka plants found nowhere else on Earth, Leptospermum evolved over millennia in the harsh Australian environment and as a consequence, are hardy plants, tolerant to drought and fire.
The production of manuka honey began when colonial settlers brought the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, to Australia in 1822 – almost 20 years prior to bees’ arrival in New Zealand, which makes the Australia, not NZ, the birthplace of manuka honey). Ironically, most of the manuka honey produced was fed back to the bees, its stronger flavour and darker hue deemed less appealing to human tastes.
That all changed after researchers identified manuka’s unique therapeutic benefits in a clinical setting (Molan & Russell, 1988), sparking a significant increase in demand and stimulating further research into its qualities.
In 1996, scientists made a global count of native Leptospermum species, finding that 83 of the 87 known Leptospermum species worldwide are native to Australia, including the Leptospermum Scoparium species (Wrigley J, Fagg M. 1996), the sole species found in New Zealand.
Thirteen years later, in 2009, researchers discovered that ‘superbugs’ – bacteria resistant to modern antibiotics – are unable to develop resistance to the activity of Manuka honey (Blair et al. 2009). Repeated attempts to generate honey-resistant bacterial strains in the lab were unsuccessful, the researchers conclude that manuka, unlike any other known antimicrobial, can effectively inhibit problematic bacterial pathogens.
Two years ago, scientists found exceptionally high levels of MGO activity in samples of manuka honey sourced in Australia (Cokcetin et al. 2016), with levels of both MGO and DHA measured in some samples of Australian honey pronounced comparable with or higher than than those observed in New Zealand manuka honey.
Manuka honey: the science
In the past decade, several Australian universities have become leading research centres for manuka honey. Notably:
- University of Technology Sydney’s I3 institute is currently engaged in cutting-edge research on the dietary health benefits of Australian manuka honey;
- University of the Sunshine Coast is investigating the diversity and regional dispersion of Australia’s Leptospermum species and quantitatively measuring their levels of DHA and MGO; and
- researchers at the University of Western Australia are studying the genetics of manuka to enable more consistent production and genetic profiling to ensure worldwide protection of the identities of Australia’s unique, endemic Leptospermum species.