Karachi: 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. “It’s like dropping an atomic bomb on us,” said Ghulam Murtaza, co-owner of Al-Barkat Rice Mills just south of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
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 $6.8 billion in annual earnings, with Pakistan in fourth position at $2.2 billion, according to UN 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 Murtaza, whose fields are barely five kilometres (three miles) from the Indian border.
“Our whole rice industry is affected,” he added. From Karachi to Kolkata, basmati is a staple in everyday diets across southern Asia.
It is eaten alongside spicy meat and vegetable curries, and is the star of the endlessly varied biryani dishes featured at weddings and celebrations across both countries.
‘Very important market’
Pakistan has expanded basmati exports to the EU over the past three years, taking advantage of India’s difficulties meeting stricter European pesticide standards. It now fills two-thirds of the region’s approximately 300,000-ton annual demand, according to the European Commission.
“For us, this is a very, very important market,” says Malik Faisal Jahangir, vice-president of the Pakistan Rice Exporters Association, who maintains 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, coffee from Colombia and several French hams are among the popular products with PGI status.
It 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 or Italian gorgonzola.
Such products are legally guarded against imitation and misuse in countries bound by the protection agreement and a quality recognition stamp allows them to sell for higher prices.
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 nevertheless grant it this recognition.