India’s agriculture ministry plans to expand the definition of basmati to include more varieties of aromatic long-grained rice in an effort to facilitate the development of new varieties of the cereal that has a huge export market.
However, doing so could leave the door open for aromatic long-grained rice varieties developed in other countries to be classified as basmati, says the commerce ministry. And that would hurt India’s trade prospects.
Basmati is a fragrant rice variety that is traditionally grown in the Himalayan foothills in India and Pakistan.
The agriculture ministry is pushing for the redefinition on the basis of a recommendation from the Indian Agriculture Research Institute. The commerce ministry has to notify the new definition for it to be accepted.
“The new definition will not only include new evolved varieties but will not affect trade value of basmati. We are looking to keep trade intact while keeping scientific research in new varieties alive,” says a government official close to the development who did not wish to be identified.
“Basmati should be limited to traditional and evolved varieties as it is under the current definition,” says another government official familiar with the matter. This official, too, did not wish to be identified.
The present definition allows only pure lines of basmati (traditional) and the next generation, with at least one pure line as a parent, to be dubbed basmati.
Traders, the people most likely to be affected by the new definition should it be notified, say redefining basmati would effectively end India and Pakistan’s monopoly over the rice variety. “The definition came after six years of debate, longer than we took for our Constitution. The US threat was the wake-up call but basmati has been threatened (by varieties) from all parts of the world,” says R.S. Seshadri, director, Tilda Riceland Pvt. Ltd, an Indian exporter of basmati.
In 1997, an American company, Rice Tec Inc., tried to patent “Texmati” at the UK Trademark Registry. This triggered a trade spat with India. During the dispute, Indian lawyers established that the name “Texmati” reminded consumers of basmati, which was grown in India.
Realizing that the threat fr-om long-grain rice grown els-ewhere was genuine, the government drafted the first defin-ition of basmati in 2003 to protect its identity. However, if the government now redefines ba-smati in a broader way, its cla-im that long-grained aromatic rice grown elsewhere cannot be called basmati may weaken.
“Broadening (the definition) must a carefully thought out exercise. We must look at the long-term implications. The line between generic and exclusive in the case of basmati is a thin one. We have strived hard to prevent basmati from becoming a generic term,” says Seshadri. “Broadening the definition will bring in scores of new varieties (that can be called basmati) and reduce the premium,” he adds.
If basmati were to become a generic term, Indian rice exporters stand to lose out to exporters from other countries who can brand their long-grained aromatic rice basmati if it meets the definition set by the government.
“Basmati was seriously thre-atened as the name was in the danger of becoming generic... The step to define basmati was taken to protect it,” says a lawyer familiar with the matter who did not wish to be named.
As first reported by Mint on 15 August, the agriculture ministry wants to redefine basmati. It wishes to make the definition broader and more generics because scientists have be-en unable to develop new varieties of the rice that meet the current definition. New varieties are usually created to incr-ease yields or fight pests.
“Nobody is stopping research,” says Karan Chanana, managing director of rice exporter Amira Foods India Ltd, who adds that the agriculture ministry can achieve its objective by simply defining a new rice variety. “Right now, we don’t need to redefine basmati. We need a new segment in rice for aromatic, long-grained rice. Right now, all rice is either basmati or non-basmati.”
The issue of definitions will cease to be as important if India manages to obtain a Geographical Indication (GI) for basmati. If the country manages to acquire this, only long-grained aromatic rice grown in certain parts of the country (and Pakistan) can be called basmati. India and Pakistan plan to pitch for a joint GI, although this could be operationally difficult to implement and monitor.
However, Seshadri says that a GI may not solve the problem, but only compound it. “We have some critical differences to other GIs,” he says. “All the rice that is grown in the area is not basmati unlike other GI products.”