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From biryani to pulao, the common culinary landscape of Pakistan and India is defined by basmati, the characteristic long-grain rice that has now become the center of the latest battle 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.
“It’s like dropping an atomic bomb on us,” said Ghulam Murtaza, co-owner of Al-Barkat Rice Mills south of Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city.
Pakistan immediately opposed India’s attempt to obtain a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European Commission.
According to the UN, India is the largest rice exporter in the world with annual revenues of $ 6.8 billion, while Pakistan ranks fourth with $ 2.2 billion.
The two countries are the only global exporters of basmati.
“(India) has caused all this fuss over there so that they can somehow capture one of our target markets,” said Murtaza, whose fields are just five kilometers (three miles) from the border with India.
“It affected our entire rice industry,” he added.
From Karachi to Kolkata, basmati is a staple of the daily diet in southern Asia.
Eaten alongside spicy meat and vegetable curries, it is the star of the endless variety of biryani dishes featured at weddings and celebrations in both countries, which split only after independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Since then, they have fought three full-scale wars, the most recent of which in 2019 led to the first cross-border aerial attacks in nearly 50 years.
Diplomatic relations have been strained for decades, and both countries regularly try to vilify each other on the international stage.
‘A very important market’
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 currently meets two-thirds of the region’s annual demand of approximately 300,000 tonnes.
“This is a very, very important market for us,” says 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, Colombian coffee and several French hams are among the popular PGI products.
It differs from the Protected Designation of Origin, which stipulates that all three stages must take place in the respective region, as is the case with cheeses such as French Brie or Italian Gorgonzola.
Such products are legally protected from counterfeiting and misuse in countries bound by the protection agreement, and the quality recognition seal allows them to sell at higher prices.
India states that in its application it does not claim to be the sole producer of distinctive rice grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, but obtaining PGI status would nonetheless grant it that recognition.
“India and Pakistan have been successfully exporting and competing in different markets for nearly 40 years … I don’t think PGI will change that,” Vijay Setia, former president of the Indian Rice Exporters Association, told AFP.
A shared legacy
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 told AFP.
“Historically, both the reputation and the geographic area (for the Basmati) are common to India and Pakistan,” says legal researcher Delphine Marie-Vivienne.
“There have already been many cases of objection to the use of geographical indications in Europe, and each time a compromise has been found.”
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 bid” instead on behalf of the common heritage that the Basmati represent, Jahangir said.
“I’m sure we’ll come to a (positive) conclusion very soon … 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.
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