Kiwifruit growers are mulling over a radical plan by Zespri to try to halt the explosion of its illegally grown SunGold brand in China.
Rogue Chinese growers are already producing around $1 billion worth of the prized SunGold without permission.
As the ‘single desk marketer’, Zespri owns the rights to SunGold, which means all growers must sell their fruit to the company for marketing and export.
Growers here say Zespri has not only lost the intellectual property, it has lost control of the variety in China, with the growth in the illicit fruit threatening Zespri's stake in its largest market.
Zespri's solution is to put its sticker on the counterfeit fruit in a controlled commercial trial, giving technology and advice to the Chinese growers who are producing the illicit fruit.
SunGold growers in New Zealand will vote on the plan in June and some aren't happy about it.
Today The Detail explores the SunGold saga with journalist Richard Rennie, who writes for Farmers Weekly and other agri business publications.
"Zespri have found themselves on the horns of a dilemma," says Rennie. "They found that there's a lot of illegally grown SunGold in the Sichuan province and it’s only likely to grow further."
SunGold was rolled out after the bacterial vine disease Psa wiped out nearly half the country's kiwifruit orchards in 2010.
According to Zespri's website, Gold Kiwifruit were particularly susceptible to the Psa bacteria and their vines were badly affected. But the new gold-variety kiwifruit had been in development for more than 10 years.
The SunGold variety was a hit – Psa-tolerant, and with a more balanced sweet tropical taste, full of Vitamin C, and a smoother skin. It’s now sold in more than 54 countries.
Zespri lost the IP after a couple stole the plant material in New Zealand and took it back to China. The High Court here awarded almost $15 million in damages to Zespri, but the decision is being appealed.
Meanwhile, at least 5,500 hectares of SunGold is now planted illegally in China, just short of the 6,500 hectares planted here.
"Zespri found themselves in the position, well how do we manage this because the cat's out of the bag and we're likely to play Whac-A-Mole trying to take out different orchards that are growing it only to find other ones would pop up over time.
"And, in a case of trying to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, they're taking a line that if we can educate growers in that area on how to grow fruit to Zespri specs and parameters for growing and taste and handling and marketing, then that's possibly going to be a more manageable option than it growing wholesale, unfettered, of variable quality and affecting the whole perception of the SunGold brand that they've worked hard to build up over time."
Zespri's chief growing officer Carol Ward says the strategy is aimed at managing the spread of the variety. Working with the Chinese industry and the government is the best approach and gives Zespri the best chance of success, she says.
Under the three-year trial, Chinese growers will produce 1.9 million trays of SunGold, a fraction of the 100 million trays of the variety that are expected to grow in New Zealand.
"It’s a small amount in context but compared to the amount that's already growing over there a fair bit could swing on this trial," Rennie says.
The Chinese-grown SunGold could become an important out-of-season supply for Zespri.
It would mean that the kiwifruit variety – a minor player in the market – would be able to secure year-round shelf space internationally.