India, Pakistan in heated battle over ownership of basmati in EU market

Workers at the Al-Barkat Rice Mills on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan. The country is opposing India's move to gain an exclusive trademark - protected geographical indication - for its basmati rice from the European Commission.
Workers at the Al-Barkat Rice Mills on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan. The country is opposing India's move to gain an exclusive trademark - protected geographical indication - for its basmati rice from the European Commission.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LAHORE • From biryani to pilau, Pakistan and India's shared culinary landscape is defined by basmati, a distinctive long-grain rice now at the centre of the latest tussle between the bitter rivals.

India has applied for an exclusive trademark that would grant it sole ownership of the basmati title in the European Union, setting off a dispute that could deal a major blow to Pakistan's position in a vital export market.

Pakistan immediately opposed India's move to gain protected geographical indication (PGI) from the European Commission.

India is the largest rice exporter in the world, netting US$6.8 billion (S$9 billion) in annual earnings, with Pakistan in fourth position at US$2.2 billion, according to United Nations figures.

The two countries are the only global exporters of basmati.

"(India) has caused all this fuss over there so they can somehow grab one of our target markets," said Mr Ghulam Murtaza, co-owner of Al-Barkat Rice Mills. His fields are barely 5km from the Indian border. "Our whole rice industry is affected."

From Karachi to Kolkata, basmati is a staple in everyday diets across southern Asia. It is eaten with spicy meat and vegetable curries, and is the star of the endlessly varied biryani dishes featured at weddings across both countries, which only split following independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

They have since fought three wars, with the latest skirmish in 2019 involving the first cross-border airstrikes in nearly 50 years.

Diplomatic relations have been tense for decades and both nations routinely try to malign each other on the international stage.

Pakistan has expanded basmati exports to the EU in the past three years, taking advantage of India's difficulties in meeting stricter European pesticide standards. It now fills two-thirds of the region's roughly 300,000-tonne annual demand, according to the European Commission.

"For us, this is a very, very important market," said Mr Malik Faisal Jahangir, vice-president of the Pakistan Rice Exporters Association, who says that Pakistani basmati is more organic and "better in quality".

PGI status grants intellectual property rights for products linked to a geographic area where at least one stage of production, processing or preparation takes place. Indian Darjeeling tea is one example. PGI differs from protected designation of origin, which requires all three stages to take place in the concerned region, as in the case of cheeses such as French brie.

India says it did not claim in its application to be the only producer of the distinctive rice grown in the Himalayan foothills, but attaining PGI status would grant it this recognition.

"India and Pakistan have been exporting and competing in a healthy way in different markets for almost 40 years... I don't think the PGI will change that," said former president of the Indian Rice Exporters Association Vijay Setia.

As per EU rules, the two countries must try to negotiate an amicable resolution by September, after India asked for a three-month extension, said a spokesman for the European Commission.

"Historically, both the reputation and geographic area (for basmati) are common to India and Pakistan," said legal researcher Delphine Marie-Vivien.

After years of procrastination, the Pakistani government in January demarcated where basmati can be harvested in the country. It also announced it would assign similar protected status to pink Himalayan salt and other vaunted agricultural products.

Pakistan hopes to convince India to instead submit a "joint application" in the name of the common heritage that basmati represents, Mr Jahangir said. "The world knows that basmati comes from both countries," he added.

If an agreement cannot be reached and the EU rules in India's favour, Pakistan could appeal to the European courts, but the long review process could leave its rice industry in limbo.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2021, with the headline 'India, Pakistan in heated battle over ownership of basmati in EU market'. Subscribe