Fragrant and long-grained, the slender Basmati rice grain packs a flavorful punch into the much-loved Arabic biryani and other rice dishes, perfectly complementing meat, fish and poultry as a festive main dish. Little wonder that Basmati exports are a cherished trade touchstone of India which, according to the All India Rice Exporters Association (AIREA), exported Rs 29,859 crore worth of Basmati rice in 2020-21 globally - of which the western Asian nations accounted for Rs 22,849 crore. (one crore is 10 million) - well over 70% of the exports.
For some time now, this lucrative trade has been facing difficult times. First came the decision by Oman, Egypt, Jordan UAE and Saudi Arabia to adopt pesticide residue norms at par with those in the European Union (EU) - and Indian Basmati simply could not match this standard, leading to large-scale rejection.
But last week, a potential rival to India's rich Basmati export market in the MENA came knocking and it has gotten Indian Basmati farmers very worried. The threat came from Egyptian scientists who have produced a new variety of basmati rice that consumes less water than the average species, paving the way to start cultivating the new variation with plans to release it on the market next year and even start exporting it abroad.
According to Alaa Khalil, director of the Field Crops Research Institute at the Ministry of Agriculture, older varieties of basmati rice consume 7,000 to 8,000 cubic meters of water per feddan, while this newer species consumes 5,000 cubic meters of water. Good for the planet and good for the economy. As of right now, Egypt imports basmati rice from Asian countries at a cost of over $100 million annually. With this new cultivation effort, basmati rice imports to Egypt will likely decrease. Not only that, but big players like India will have to watch out for competition.
Egypt's success poses a larger threat because it will open the floodgates to 'generic Basmati' cultivation by other countries. Last October, India tried to apply for the GI tag of Basmati in the European Union, which basically means that they would be the sole exporters of the rice breed. But Pakistan was able to overturn their application, leaving Egypt room to enter into the basmati rice market.
One of the crucial aspects on which India got the Basmati patent of US firm RiceTec cancelled was the photoperiod sensitivity (PS), which is development responses of plants to relative lengths of light and dark periods. Normally, traditional Basmati is sown in June and harvested in November with its growth based on climate and weather pattern. But the new varieties of the fragrant rice are of 100-120-day duration that reduces the PS. “This is one way in which India could lose its exclusivity or even GI tag,” fears S Chandrasekharan, author of “Basmati Rice: The Natural History and Geographical Indication”.
Even within India, the Punjab Rice Exporters Association's demand to denotify Basmati not conforming to the sow-in-June-harvest-in-November cycle, was rejected by courts.
Basmati rice quality has a historical reputation but today it was moving on to gaining “generic reputation” than one with a GI tag. This could result in countries such as the US, Egypt, Thailand and others countering that Indian Basmati does not have such a reputation.
“The Basmati rice could become a generic variety than an exclusive GI tagged one,” warns the author. Chandrasekharan says that in the past decade, an unknown process had been initiated to naturalize evolved Basmati rice varieties. “If corrective measures are not undertaken in the form of protective discrimination in Basmati rice, its protection will become meaningless,” he argues.
For India, Basmati rice is crucial as about 4.5 lakh ton are exported annually fetching about ₹30,000 crores in precious foreign exchange. Will Egypt get its hands on this helping of biryani?