A MAN SMUGGLED Kiwifruit buds from New Zealand to China. A crime? Apparently so, judging by the reported results. “Thousands of hectares of illicit orchards have since sprung up, and New Zealand has spent years scrambling to protect its intellectual property,” the UK Guardian newspaper reported on Friday.
Haoyu Gao, the “villain” blamed for taking the cargo of golden kiwifruit from New Zealand to China, was ordered by a court to pay NZ$14m (that’s about US$9.8m) in damages.
It sounds like a simple case of stolen seed crops, and one can foresee a David versus Goliath battle coming between the small country and the giant one. Indeed, the Guardian report’s intro runs like this: “It is the story of a global superpower, a smuggling operation, pestilence and a small hairy fruit.”
But a closer look tells a different story. In fact, research turns the case on its head.
For a start, the kiwifruit is not native to New Zealand. It is native to one place only on this planet. . . China. It is indigenous to the north-east part that includes Hubei, Sichuan and Zhejiang.
The only reason it grows in New Zealand because someone took the fruit buds to that country from China, roughly a century ago.
Cultivate kiwi fruit as a crop: picture by Zespri
The clue is in the former name. Until the mid-1970s, the English name wasn’t kiwifruit but “the Chinese gooseberry”, revealing its origin. The Guardian report does mention the fruit’s evolutionary Chinese origins, but only in a passing reference buried deep in the story.
The fruit was taken from China to New Zealand before there were rigorous protections for intellectual property. And now, a particular variety of the fruit has been taken back to China, but is now protected by a panoply of international laws.
That changes the moral picture but makes no difference to the legal one, which of course operates under modern international law.
There are other factors that make the story even more complex. Some reports suggest that the newly popular “golden” variety of Kiwifruit was developed by New Zealanders, so they have an exclusive right to it.
But when Friday magazine staff checked old writings about the fruit, which was first cultivated in China 300 years ago, we find clear references to a yellow-flesh varietal.
Advertising kiwi fruit in China: picture: Zespri
What’s interesting is that Zespri, the New Zealand company that dominates the market, appears to have decided that it doesn’t want any kind of fight with China, preferring to co-operate.
It may have something to do with the sales potential. Ten years ago, the firm sold five per cent of its produce to China. Now the figure is in the region of 20 per cent and there’s much growth potential. The Chinese are Zespri’s good customers, and the firm wants to keep it that way.
As a result, Zespri bosses are exploring a deal with Chinese growers. One potential answer might be for the well-known Zespri brand to be affixed to China-grown fruit.
The kiwifruit story has grown from a simple good-guy-vs-bad-guy tale into a more complex one in which both sides were seen to have rights, and in which participants are looking for a deal in which both sides benefit.
If tiny New Zealand can be this flexible and open-minded, one hopes that Australia and the United States, both of which tend to take a more aggressive attitude to dealing with China, could learn something useful.
The case is also an object lesson in the way that reporters tell a story better if they dig deeper and make a genuine effort to be impartial.
Meanwhile, scientists recently discovered a new use for the classic green kiwifruit. Eat two a day, and constipation disappears.
One hopes that trade tensions can vanish as simply.
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Main picture: Madison Inouye/ Pexels