From biryani to pulao, the common culinary landscape of Pakistan and India is defined by basmati, a unique long-grain rice that is now at the center of the latest battle between these two rivals.
India applied for an exclusive trademark that will grant it sole ownership of the Basmati title in the European Union, triggering a dispute that could cause a major blow to Pakistan’s position in an important export market.
“It’s like throwing an atomic bomb at us,” said Ghulam Murtaza, co-owner of the Al-Barkat rice factory south of Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city.
Pakistan immediately opposed India’s move to obtain a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European Commission.
According to United Nations data, India is the world’s largest rice exporter with an annual net income of 6.8 billion U.S. dollars, and Pakistan ranks fourth with 2.2 billion U.S. dollars.
These two countries are the only exporters of Basmati in the world.
“(India) caused all this fuss there, so they could somehow grab one of our target markets,” said Murtaza, whose fields are only 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Indian border.
“Our entire rice industry has been affected,” he added.
From Karachi to Kolkata, Basmati is a staple food in the daily diet of South Asia.
It was eaten with spicy meat and vegetable curries, and it was the star of the wide variety of Indian Biryani dishes at weddings and celebrations between the two countries, which did not split until independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Since then, they have fought three full-scale wars. The most recent skirmish occurred in 2019, involving the first cross-border air strike in nearly 50 years.
Diplomatic relations have been tense for decades, and the two countries often try to discredit each other on the international stage.
‘Very important market’
In the past three years, Pakistan has taken advantage of India’s difficulty in meeting the stricter European pesticide standards and expanded its exports of basmati to the EU.
According to the European Commission, it now meets two-thirds of the region’s annual demand of approximately 300,000 tons.
“For us, this is a very, very important market,” said Malik Faisal Jahangir, vice chairman of the Pakistan Rice Exporters Association, who claimed that Pakistani basmati rice is more organic and “better quality.”
PGI status grants intellectual property rights for products related to a geographic area where at least one stage of production, processing, or preparation has occurred.
Indian Darjeeling tea, Colombian coffee and several types of French ham are popular products with PGI status.
It is different from the protected appellation of origin, which requires all three stages to be carried out in the relevant area, such as Brie or Gorgonzola.
Such products are protected by law in countries/regions subject to protection agreements to prevent imitation and abuse, and the seal of quality approval allows them to be sold at higher prices.
India stated that it did not claim in its application that it is the sole producer of unique rice grown in the Himalayas, but obtaining PGI status will still grant it this recognition.
“For nearly 40 years, India and Pakistan have been exporting and competing in a healthy way in different markets…I don’t think PGI will change this,” Vijay Setia, former chairman of the Indian Rice Exporters Association, told AFP.
A spokesperson for the European Commission told Agence France-Presse that according to EU regulations, the two countries must try to reach an amicable settlement through negotiations before September after India requests an extension of three months.
“Historically, the reputation and geographic region (in Basmati) of India and Pakistan have been common,” said legal researcher Delphine Marie-Vivien.
“There have been many cases against geographical indication applications in Europe, and compromises have been found every time.”
After years of delay, the Pakistani government delineated in January where the country could harvest Basmati.
It also announced that it would give pink Himalayan salt and other boasted agricultural products a similar protection status.
Jahangir said Pakistan hopes to persuade India to submit a “joint application” in the name of the common heritage represented by Basmati.
“I believe we will come to a (positive) conclusion soon… the whole world knows that Basmati comes from these two countries,” he added.
If an agreement cannot be reached and the EU is in India’s favor, Pakistan can appeal to the European Court of Justice, but the lengthy review process may put its rice industry into trouble.