Just in time for holiday meal prep, we have a legal quandary worthy of debate.  Your side dish recipe calls for brown basmati rice bejeweled with cranberries and pomegranates. Sounds alluring. But what exactly is Basmati rice?

The answer, like so many things in law and life, is “it depends.”  Cooking websites tell us that basmati rice is a form of long grained, aromatic, sometimes nutty-tasting rice with pointy ends that is grown in the humid Himalayan foothills of South Asia. It is the preferred base for dishes like biryanis and pilafs and is often jazzed up with saffron, turmeric and other fragrant spices.

Basmati rice has been cultivated in the Himalayan foothills at least since the late 18th century and possibly longer. But in any case, long before the partition of British India into modern day India and Pakistan in 1947. And therein lies the seeds of the current dispute.

The Basmati Question

India asserts that the label Basmati should be reserved for long-grained rice cultivated in specific areas of northern India.  These include all districts of the states of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, as well as specific districts of two additional states, namely western Uttar Pradesh and three districts in Jammu & Kashmir. The selection of these regions was based on maps prepared by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). ADEPA is a statutory body under the Indian Ministry of Commerce that deals with the export of agricultural products.

The Indian rice industry has even developed a DNA fingerprint for Basmati rice that has been useful in detecting adulterated rice products. Participating growers can seek out the certification done by the laboratory of the Basmati Export Development Foundation. This helps protect against competition from other cheaper and less desirable strains of rice often mixed in with or sold with basmati rice for the export market. And ADEPA has beaten back attempts by other producers, including a major U.S. company, to obtain a patent on basmati rice seeds.

In India, the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act of 1999 came into force in 2003.  In 2016, after application by APEDA, the seven states noted above were granted the exclusive right under Indian law to apply Basmati as a geographical indication (GI) to their rice.  According to official filings of the Indian government, “Basmati means “a special long grain aromatic rice grown and produced in a particular geographical region of the Indian subcontinent. The region is a part of northern India, below the foothills of the Himalayas forming part of the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP).” The special characteristics of “basmati” are “its long, slender kernels with a high length-to-breadth radio, an exquisite aroma, sweet taste, soft texture, delicate curvature, intermediate amylose content, high integrity of grain on cooling and linear kernel elongation with least breadth-wise swelling on cooking.”

Feeling well informed?

When geographical indications seek protection, a link must be established between the characteristics of the good, and the place of origin, method of production, climatic conditions and geographical area and the quality of the resulting foodstuff. Also important is the association in the public mind between the foodstuff and the area in which it is cultivated.

Exports and GIs

The 2016 achievement was a national designation, applicable to sales of rice within India itself. However, the big money in rice is now in exports.  According to a recent article in Swarajya Magazine, a business publication, India produces about 7.5 million metric tons of basmati rice and exports about 4.5 metric tons annually. In 2020 according to the same source, basmati rice exports increased 10% from April to June of this year alone.

India’s traditional trading partners for rice have been the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But given problems in recouping revenue from sales to Iran, India has reportedly been seeking additional export markets. (A November 27, 2020 article in the Los Angeles Times mentioned India’s problems in trading with Iran given the US sanctions on doing business with that country. India historically has sold rice and purchased petroleum from Iran.)

Joining the Listings in e Ambrosia

Protected Geographical Indication in the EU system

India has now skipped the appetizers and headed directly for a more lucrative international meal by seeking to register Basmati as a Geographical Indication with the European Commission.  If approved, Basmati will be added to the fetchingly named eAmbrosia database for protected geographical indications. The EU legal scheme arises under Article 50(2)(a) of Regulation (EU) No 1151/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council on quality schemes for agricultural products and foodstuffs.

The European Union has two tiers of protection for geographical indications for foodstuff. The highest level of protection for agricultural products is the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Such a product must be produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognized know how. Next is a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) which covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation must take place in the geographic area.

The presence of the EU’s PDO or PGI mark on packaging provides the opportunity for upsell of foodstuffs at premium prices.  The big cheese and wine producing countries within the EU like France, Italy, Greece, Denmark and Spain, have excelled at establishing Geographical Indication tags for their products. Think of PARMA Ham, Feta or Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses or Sherry from Jerez. Their success in marketing such products as authentic to place, artisanal and of high quality has contributed mightily to their sales in internal EU markets as well as protections with valuable EU trading partners.

At stake for Indian growers and exporters, if the application is successful, is the exclusive right to promote and sell rice in all 27 countries of the European Union under the label Basmati.  If the application is approved, rice labelled Basmati will be sold lawfully in the entire EU marketplace only if it comes from one of the designated seven Indian states noted in India’s application and has the other characteristics.  Non-Indian rice products labelled Basmati can be stopped at the border of any EU country or taken off shelves within EU countries. Importers and advertisers of non-Indian basmati will be deemed infringers and fined, even if the products are clearly labelled as “in the style of” or “like basmati rice.

Enter Pakistan

The EU protection system affords the opportunity for third parties to file oppositions. Similar to a trademark registration scheme, but at the level of national governments or quasi governmental bodies like consortia of producers, an opposer has 3 months from the date of a GI application to the EU Council on Quality to present arguments why registration should not be granted.

On December 8, 2020, just two days shy of the deadline, Pakistan filed its objection to India’s application for protection for Basmati. The argument most likely is that Pakistan has been growing Basmati for decades in its Punjab province just west of India. (The Opposition is not yet available online.) The climactic conditions that make for propitious rice crops in the humid Himalayan foothills did not evaporate with Partition.

According to the Los Angeles Times, India and Pakistan discussed a joint application for a Basmati  GI tag more than a decade ago.  That amicable approach apparently dried up after the 2008 bombing of Mumbai which India blamed on terrorists harbored in Pakistan.

Pakistan has another hurdle to overcome. Despite having enacted a Geographical Indications (Registration and Protection) Act on March 28, 2020, Pakistan has not yet  protected Basmati as a GI within Pakistan. Nor has it exercised the same degree of control as India over the regions where rice labelled basmati can be grown or the methods used.  Sindh Province in southeast Pakistan is a rice-growing area that also claims to produce basmati rice for an internal market, despite different climatic conditions.  Regional politics, Swarajya Magazine suggests, may prevent the government in Islamabad from clawing back use of Basmati exclusively to rice grown in the more northerly Punjab region of Pakistan.

Possible Holiday Outcomes

If the EU accepts India’s definition of the specific attributes of seed, soil, geography, climate and cultivation that determine Basmati rice, Pakistan may be out of luck in its quest to share in use of the GI for exports.  And it will suffer the sting of relinquishing the high-end rice market in the EU to India.

But the holidays being nigh, another result is possible.  In a gesture of diplomatic goodwill, EU bureaucrats could find that there is sufficient evidence that the northern Punjab region of Pakistan might be eligible to share the tag Basmati, provided the salient conditions are met.

“Brown Basmati rice from India.” “ White Basmati rice from Pakistan.” Side by side on a shelf in a Brussels market. It’s not out of the question.

Good luck in the kitchen.  Pass the rice pilaf, please. And Happy Holidays to all.