A new ingredient has been added to the boiling pot that is the relationship between India and Pakistan: basmati rice. Pakistan’s government has vowed to “vehemently” oppose an application by India for the long-grain aromatic rice to be recognised by the EU as being grown exclusively in specific regions of the Indian subcontinent.
Since 2006, the EU has applied zero tariffs on rice imported into the bloc’s member states that has been authenticated by either Pakistani or Indian authorities as being truly basmati. Around two-thirds of basmati imports to the EU are from India and the rest from its northern neighbour.
The application by the Indian government for sole geographical indication (GI) status for its homegrown product has prompted alarm at the highest levels of government in Pakistan.
“The special characteristic of basmati is grown and produced in all districts of the state of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Himanchal Pradesh, Uttarkand, as well as in specific districts of western Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir,” the Indian application says.
GI status is used to mark a product out to consumers as having “qualities, reputation or characteristics relating to its place of origin”. In Europe, products such as Parma ham, champagne and stilton cheese have such a status, allowing producers from the respective regions to charge higher prices.
The price of Darjeeling tea soared after 2011 when the Indian state of West Bengal was given the exclusive right to carry the name on packets of its leaves.
The granting of GI status solely to Indian basmati rice would be a hammer blow to Pakistani exporters. India’s application prompted an emergency meeting of Pakistan’s commerce secretary, the chair of the country’s intellectual property organisation, representatives of Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan, and senior legal advisers to the government.
Abdul Razak Dawood, an adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, subsequently said the application would be “vehemently opposed”. A formal objection is expected before the EU’s December deadline.
Pakistan’s exports of basmati rice to the EU have more than doubled in the last three years, from 120,000 metric tons in 2017 to 300,000 metric tons in 2019, according to the European commission.
Meanwhile, India’s exports of basmati rice have been shrinking owing to a failure of its producers to meet increasingly strict EU standards on the use of pesticides.
A growing proportion of Indian basmati exports go to Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East – a trend that New Delhi wants to reverse.