01/13/2023, 18.15
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The grain of discord: India-Pakistan row over basmati rice

by Alessandra De Poli

Yesterday, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India announced new standards for the most sought-after grain since Mughal times. Pakistan has been opposed to India’s application for Protected Geographical Indication, fearing a negative impact on its exports. As India lifts protectionist measures, Indian exports are expected to jump in the coming months.

Milan (AsiaNews) – As India gets ready to lift restrictions on rice exports, it might set off the next India-Pakistan row, this time over the dinner table,

Yesterday, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) announced new standards for basmati rice.

Starting next August, this grain, which has a low glycaemic index, will have to meet certain limits in terms of quality, fragrance and characteristics, including average size, elongation ratio after cooking, amylose content, and uric acid.

If these standards are not respected, the rice cannot be sold as basmati. “This will establish fair practices in trade of basmati and protect consumer interest,” Union (federal) Minister of Health and Family Welfare Mansukh Mandaviya tweeted.

The issue, however, is likely to stir up things again with neighbouring Pakistan, which previously opposed any move by the European Union to grant Indian rice Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).

In 2020, India applied for an exclusive Geographical Indication tag to Indian-origin basmati rice with the EU’s Council on Quality Schemes for Agricultural and Foodstuffs. Had this been granted, Pakistani exports would have been drastically reduced.

In 2016, taking advantage of India’s difficulty in complying with strict EU standards on the use of pesticides to expand its exports to the EU, Pakistan overtook Indian exports to Europe in 2020.

In light of the controversy, the European Commission had asked the two countries, the world's only exporters of basmati rice, to settle the matter, hoping for a joint application, but this has not yet happened.

Growing basmati is shaped by geography and cold weather, which is why crops are concentrated in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Popular on the tables of Mughal emperors, basmati comes in three colours: white, red and brown. According to some academic studies, the red variety is native to the provinces of Lahore and Multan, now in Pakistan, while the word "basmati" is mentioned for the first time in a popular romance novel written in 1766 or 1767 by a Punjabi writer.

Ironically, India cited the same arguments when contesting an attempt by Texas-based RiceTec's to claim the name basmati for its own varieties grown in Texas. India, with the backing of Pakistan, won the case in 2001; thus, the term "basmati" could only be used for rice grown in these two countries.

According to UN figures, India is the world's top rice exporter, netting US$ 6.8 billon in annual earnings, with Pakistan in fourth position at US$ 2.2 billion. Two thirds of global basmati exports come from India.

According to Bloomberg, New Delhi could soon lift protectionist measures from rice exports (as well as wheat and sugar) after domestic prices appear to have stabilised and the government has managed to buy enough grains to cover its social assistance programmes for the poorest sections of the population.

According to other reports, basmati exports from India could rise by 15 per cent this year over last year; several Middle East countries are trying to stock up despite higher prices, given the impact of the Ukraine war.

India’s basmati exports rose 11 per cent in the first half of the 2022-23 fiscal year, Trade Ministry data indicate.


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