On 11 September 2020, India has applied for an exclusive Geographical Indications (GI) tag to basmati rice at the European Union’s official registry, the Council on Quality Schemes for Agricultural Products and Food Stuffs, and mentions in its application that basmati is an Indian-origin product. If India’s claim is successful, Pakistan, which is yet to implement the GI law proclaimed in March, could face significant damage to its exports.
In a meeting chaired by commerce adviser Abdul Razak Dawood on 5 October 2020, Pakistan announced that it would oppose India’s application for exclusive Basmati rice GI tagging. “Pakistan will vehemently oppose India’s application in the EU and restrain India from obtaining the exclusive GI tag of basmati rice,” said a statement issued by the ministry.
What is the Geographical Indication tag?
Developing countries worldwide are increasingly using geographic labeling to boost products’ value, raise rural incomes, and protect farmland. A geographical indication is defined as a sign used on an agricultural, natural, or manufactured product (handicrafts and industrial goods) with a specific geographic origin, which gives it certain qualities, distinctiveness, or a reputation which is essentially attributable to the place of its origin. Examples include Champagne for sparkling wine and Darjeeling tea.
The GI tag is a trademark in the international market. Once granted, no one can misuse the name to market a similar product. Therefore it gives assurance and comfort to customers about the authenticity of that product.
Basmati and GI tag
The Indian application submitted in the EU states that basmati is the special long grain aromatic rice grown and produced in a particular geographical region of the Indian sub-continent. It also specifies that this region is a part of northern India, below the Himalayan foothills, forming part of the Indo-Gangetic plain (IGP). Historically, it has been produced in undivided India for a long time and has a recorded history of over 200 years.
Though basmati rice is grown in many parts of India, APEDA got the GI tag for seven states located in the IGP, including Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, outskirts of Delhi, western Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, in May 2010. In providing the GI tag cover to its basmati rice, the Indian government has, however, resisted attempts by Madhya Pradesh (MP) to get a similar tag, arguing that if MP is included in the GI list of basmati rice, then it may harm the reputation of Indian basmati and the national interest.
The origin and reputation of basmati rice differentiate it from other varieties. Many exporters report that the distinct aroma and the texture of basmati come from the Indian soil irrigated by waters from the Himalayan rivers. Some varieties like Dehradun Basmati, Amritsar Basmati, and Tarawari Basmati have been famous for hundreds of years.
To date, it had been a tough battle for India to protect the basmati name from the encroachment of various nations, which all came out with their versions of basmati. In the late 1990s, an American firm, Rice Tec, tried to get patents for the variety under the Texmati brand in the US. RiceTec lost or withdrew most of the patent claims, including the right to call their rice products’ basmati.’ After the Texmati incident, India enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act to protect its crop variety in 1999.
Pakistan to oppose India’s claim on Basmati GI
Pakistan also produces a wide range of basmati rice and believes it has a right to have a GI tag. According to reports, leading Pakistani rice exporters have called on the government to immediately oppose the Indian application, which would badly damage Pakistani exports to European countries. They fear that if the problem is not handled swiftly, they may have to sell Basmati rice with an Indian name or brand.
According to the EU’s official journal, any country can oppose the Indian application within three months from the request’s publication date. This is stated under the rules for registration of a name under Article 50(2) (a) of Regulations (EU) No 1151/2012 of the European Parliament and the Council on quality schemes for agricultural products and foodstuffs.
Pesticides such as tricyclazole
Food industry experts call India’s move significant, especially after the EU revised its rules for fungicides in crops, including rice, in 2018. In the past, India lost a considerable share of the EU market after tests showed that Indian basmati rice had higher levels than the permitted levels of tricyclazole, a pesticide for fungal pests. Since then, Pakistan has gained market share and almost doubled its exports of rice. The Indian government is planning to ban pesticides, which led to trade disputes such as those over tricyclazole, and this is good news for the basmati industry stakeholders!