A little over five years ago I asked the question as to whether green-lipped mussels could be the next heavy lifter for the New Zealand export economy. At the time, the Government had a goal of doubling exports by 2025, which seemed exceedingly optimistic.
Both then and since then I have been frustrated by what I see as naivety within the broader community as to how New Zealand is going to pay its way in a complex and competitive world. There often seems to be unwillingness to grapple with the hard realities of a small isolated country in the South Pacific with a rapidly growing population and increasing inequalities.
I have listened many times to speakers who say that services rather than goods are going to be our salvation. When I ask where within that framework might we find a competitive advantage, I typically hear only generic terms such as ‘technology’ Our two big service industries are tourism and the education of foreign students.
The problem with tourism is that the competitive advantage relates to the natural environment which has a limited carrying capacity. As for education exports, direct experience tells me that New Zealand is well down the ranking in terms of educational status. Price and lure of residency have been key driving factors.
I therefore come back to primary industries and related food offerings as the economic sector where we have a unique competitive advantage. The problem has been that we are running up against resource constraints. Where are the next heavy lifters going to come from that can support dairy, meat, timber, kiwifruit and wine?
In early 2015 I was on a Lincoln University field trip to Marlborough with my colleague Marvin Pangborn, where we were focusing on alternative land uses. Having looked at dryland sheep and wine, we visited the Sanford green-lipped mussel factory at Havelock. That led me on a journey of discovery which made me think that mussels, despite lots of challenges, could indeed be a heavy lifter. Looking back, I see that I referred to mussels on multiple occasions in articles written that year, but then I let the topic slip away from my writings as I focused on other challenges.
In recent weeks, I have come back to thinking about green-lipped mussels, largely by a chance meeting at Lincoln University where I still give guest lectures. After one such session, one of the students, Maegen Blom, introduced herself to me and explained her involvement in a family business growing and marketing premium branded (Mills Bay) green-lipped mussels. We subsequently agreed to meet up over a long coffee and see what we could learn from each other.
I learned that the industry has indeed moved on nicely since I last wrote about it. Back in 2015, the latest figures I could get were for 2013 when exports were worth $181 million. In 2019, exports were $333 million. That represents a compound growth rate of around 10 percent per annum. I also found out that the overall industry (exports and local) markets around $500 million of product. An intriguing part of this is powdered nutraceuticals focusing on omega3, glucosamine, selenium and other micronutrients.
Back in 2015, I came to the conclusion that ongoing development of the industry would depend on two key factors. The first related to solving the problem of being reliant on wild spat to seed the mussel farms, with arrival of this wild spat being a chance event relating to spat-covered seaweed arriving on our shores. The second issue related to developing off-shore growing capabilities beyond the sheltered bays of the Marlborough Sounds and various other bays around New Zealand.
From Maegen Blom, I learned that good progress is being made on both counts, and that her own Mills Bay family business includes a new farm in the open waters of Golden Bay using nursery-produced spat. Mills Bay operations are linked into the Sanford operations. Sanford has been the leader in association with the Cawthron Institute in developing the relevant science of nursery-grown spat, combined with the selection within that science program of superior strains of green-lipped mussel.
Back in 2015, the Mayor of Opotiki had written to me explaining their local efforts to grow mussels in off-shore waters. Scratching around now on the internet I see evidence that those efforts have led to considerable progress and that large farms are now being developed in the Bay of Plenty. I have more to learn as to the details, but it looks exciting.
I also know from long experience that new endeavours never go smoothly, and that new challenges will emerge. In particular, I am aware that fish such as schnapper greatly enjoy raiding spat and juvenile mussel nurseries. I am sure that other challenges will also emerge.
One of the reasons that green-lipped musses are so exciting is that you don’t have to feed them. They have super-efficient filtering systems, and a single mussel can filter well over 300 litres of passing water a day while searching for phytoplankton and algae. This is very different from most forms of aquaculture where the fish do have to be fed, with that setting up its own issues of pollution.
Equally exciting is that green-lipped mussels are unique to New Zealand. Other countries may eventually be able to set up their own green-lipped mussel farms but New Zealand has a huge start. Mussels have evolved in the temperate waters of the South Pacific, and other countries may be challenged to replicate those conditions. And they won’t have the wild spat to get the industry started.
In marketing, one of the first issues is how to differentiate a product from other products on the market. Having a unique species to focus on is a great start.
Maegen and I spent some hours talking about those broader issues of marketing. I was a little shocked to learn that although Mills Bay has its own premium branding and a specific focus on value-adding through to restaurant consumers, most of New Zealand’s green mussels, although sold under a generic GreenMussel trademarked brand, are essentially sold as a commodity.
In the same way as for many other food-based products, we do a great job in New Zealand with the quality assurance and logistics of physical supply chains that get product out to the world, but struggle to get close to those final consumers. Maegen and I agreed that there is untapped potential and that this is exciting. Both of us were also realistic to recognise that reaching out to final consumers in distant parts of the word is very challenging.
I came away from our session excited on two counts. First, I think that farmed mussels can indeed be a heavy lifter and help to solve some big challenges that New Zealand society faces on a very broad front. Second, it was exciting to know that there are young New Zealanders out there who have the passion to do something about it.
For anyone wishing to know more about the Bloms and their mussel endeavours, they featured in a remarkable 2019 Country Calendar programme that can be accessed here.
*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. His articles are archived at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com. You can contact him directly here.