The New Zealand government is giving a multimillion dollar boost to efforts to develop new kiwifruit varieties. Not all New Zealand grower-shippers have welcomed the partnership, however.

Some New Zealand growers unhappy with kiwifruit plans

The government is joining forces with Zespri International Ltd., the New Zealand-based global marketing organization, in a seven-yearlong breeding program totaling nearly $36 million, New Zealand. That is the equivalent of about $28 million, U.S.

“We’ll be looking for those varieties that are going to be commercially interesting in the future,” said Lain Jager, chief operating officer for Zespri.

The government will contribute more than 40% of the funding while Zespri puts up the balance, Jager said. Zespri’s plant and food research program has been on going for 20 years, he said, and has about 50,000 seedlings,

“The funding will permit us to increase that number many times,” Jager said. “The more seedlings you have going in, the more opportunity you have to come up with that cultivar that is going to be commercially exciting going forward.”

In July, Auckland-based Turners & Growers Ltd. filed suit challenging legislation that maintains Zespri’s position as a near-monopoly exporter of kiwifruit. Under the new partnership, growers will provide the bulk of Zespri’s contributions, but Zespri will retain the intellectual property, Tony Gibbs, chairman of Turners and Growers, said in New Zealand news reports.

There are about 600 kiwifruit growers in New Zealand who are not Zespri shareholders, the reports said.

The government-private industry partnership will be the world’s largest research and development program into new kiwifruit varieties and will benefit from already established new product concepts. Among them is a gold variety and several new red varieties, Jager said.

Tests of the new gold variety reveal it stores longer than the Zespri gold, a variety that was commercialized 10 years ago and now accounts for 20% of Zespri’s business, Jager said.

“Zespri gold represents 20 million trays a year and will increase to 30 million trays annually in three years,” he said.

The red varieties in development are about five years from being released, but are superior in size and storage to red kiwifruit varieties now available, Jager said.

“We’re also working on product concepts aimed at the convenience sector,” he said. “It could perhaps be eaten like an apple, skin and all, or could be peeled like a banana.”

Those concepts are about 10 years from release, Jager said. The long-range goal, he said, is to increase worldwide sales of the fruit.

“Kiwifruit represents just .5% of the world’s whole fruit bowl,” Jager said. “Business has doubled in the past 10 years, and we expect it to double again in the next ten.”

The long-term goal of variety development is to increase the size of the category for New Zealand growers and for growers around the world, Jager said.                

While the Zespri gold variety has done well in New Zealand and, to a lesser degree in Italy, it has not proved to be a good variety for California, he said.             

“We’ve learned some hard lessons,” Jager said. “We’re really going to focus on bringing new products to market, and we’re not gong to do it unless they are the right products.”

Whether Zespri will be able to reap benefits from the new varieties remains in the hands of the New Zealand legal system. Turners & Growers has asked the nation’s high court to find that the kiwifruit exporter has been acting unlawfully, news reports said, and it plans to continue to pursue the suit even in light of the new partnership.

(Due to writer's error, Mr. Jager's first name was incorrect in the original version.)