LAHORE • From biryani to pilaf, the common culinary landscape of Pakistan and India is defined by basmati, the distinctive long grain rice that has now become the center of the latest struggle between bitter rivals.
India has applied for an exclusive trademark that will grant it sole ownership of the Basmati title in the European Union, sparking a controversy that could deal a serious blow to Pakistan’s position in a vital export market.
Pakistan immediately opposed India’s attempt to obtain a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European Commission.
India is the largest rice exporter in the world, according to the UN, with annual revenues of US $ 6.8 billion (US $ 9 billion), with Pakistan ranked fourth with US $ 2.2 billion.
The two countries are the only global exporters of basmati.
“(India) has caused all this buzz there so they can somehow capture one of our target markets,” said Mr Ghulam Murtaza, co-owner of Al-Barkat Rice Mills. Its fields are located just 5 km from the border with India. “It affected our entire rice industry.”
From Karachi to Kolkata, basmati is a staple of the daily diet in southern Asia. Eaten with a spicy meat and vegetable curry, it is the star of the endless variety of biryani dishes featured at weddings in both countries, which only split after independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
They have fought three wars since then, with the most recent skirmish in 2019 carrying the first cross-border airstrikes in nearly 50 years.
Diplomatic relations have been strained for decades, and both countries regularly try to vilify each other on the international stage.
Pakistan has expanded its exports of basmati to the EU over the past three years, taking advantage of India’s difficulties in meeting stricter European pesticide standards. According to the European Commission, it now meets two-thirds of the region’s annual demand of about 300,000 tonnes.
“This is a very, very important market for us,” said Mr. Malik Faisal Jahangir, vice president of the Pakistan Rice Exporters Association, who says Pakistani basmati is more organic and “better quality”.
PGI status grants intellectual property rights to products associated with 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 respective region, as is the case with cheeses such as French Brie.
India states that in its application it does not claim to be the only producer of distinctive rice grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, but obtaining PGI status will grant it such recognition.
“India and Pakistan have been successfully exporting and competing successfully in different markets for nearly 40 years … I don’t think PGI will change that,” said former President of the Indian Rice Exporters Association Vijay Setia.
According to EU rules, the two countries should try to negotiate a peace settlement by September after India asked for a three-month extension, a spokesman for the European Commission said.
“Historically, both reputation and geographic area (for the Basmati) are common to India and Pakistan,” said legal researcher Delphine Marie-Vivienne.
After years of delay, the Pakistani government decided in January where basmati can be harvested in the country. He also announced that he would grant similar protected status to pink Himalayan salt and other vaunted agricultural products.
Pakistan hopes to persuade India to file a “joint application” instead on behalf of the common heritage that the Basmati represent, Mr Jahangir said. “The world knows that Basmati comes from both countries,” he added.
If an agreement cannot be reached and the EU acts in India’s favor, Pakistan can go to European courts, but a lengthy review process could leave its rice industry in limbo.
AGENCY FRANCE PRESS