From biryani to pulao, the shared culinary landscape of Pakistan and India is defined by basmati, a distinctive long-grain rice that is now the center of the latest showdown between bitter rivals.
India has applied for an exclusive trademark granting it sole ownership of the basmati title to the European Union, sparking a dispute that could deal a major 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, just south of Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city.
Pakistan immediately opposed the taking of India to obtain the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European Commission.
India is the world’s largest exporter of rice, with annual revenues of $ 6.8 billion, with Pakistan in fourth place, with $ 2.2 billion, according to United Nations figures.
Both countries are the world’s only exporters of basmati.
“(India) has caused all this fuss over there so that they can somehow catch one of our target markets,” said Murtaza, whose fields are just five kilometers from the border with India.
“Our entire rice industry is affected,” he added.
From Karachi to Calcutta, basmati is a staple in daily diets in South Asia.
It is eaten alongside spicy meats and vegetables, and is the star of the endless biryani dishes that are presented at weddings and celebrations in both countries, which only separated after independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
They have since waged three large-scale wars, with the last skirmish of 2019 being the first cross-border airstrikes in almost 50 years.
Diplomatic relations have been strained for decades and both countries routinely try to malign each other on the international stage.
“Very important market”
Pakistan has expanded basmati exports to the EU over the past three years, taking advantage of India’s difficulties in meeting stricter European pesticide standards.
It now meets two-thirds of the region’s approximate annual demand of 300,000 tonnes, according to the European Commission.
“For us, this is a very, very important market,” says Malik Faisal Jahangir, vice president of the Pakistan Rice Exporters Association, who claims Pakistani basmati are more organic and “of better quality”.
The PGI condition grants intellectual property rights for products linked to a geographical area where at least one stage of production, processing or preparation takes place.
Indian Darjeeling tea, Colombian coffee and various French hams are among the most popular products with their PGI.
It differs from the protected designation of origin, which requires all three stages to take place in the region in question, as in the case of cheeses such as French brie or Italian gorgonzola.
These products are legally protected from imitation and misuse in countries bound by the protection agreement and a seal of quality recognition allows them to sell at higher prices.
India says it did not claim in its application to be the only producer of distinctive rice grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, but achieving the status of PGI would, however, grant it that recognition.
“India and Pakistan have been exporting and competing in a healthy way in different markets for almost 40 years … I don’t think the PGI will change that,” Vijay Setia, former president of AFP, told AFP news agency the Indian Association of Rice Exporters.
According to EU rules, the two countries should try to negotiate a friendly resolution before September, after India asked for a three-month extension, a European Commission spokesman told AFP.
“Historically, both reputation and geographic area (for basmati) are common in India and Pakistan,” says legal researcher Delphine Marie-Vivien.
“There have already been quite a few cases of opposition to applications for geographical indication in Europe, and every time a compromise has been found.”
After years of procrastination, the Pakistani government demarcated in January where basmati can be harvested in the country.
He also announced that he would assign a similar protected status to Himalayan rose salt and other revered agricultural products.
Pakistan hopes to convince India to file a “joint application” on behalf of the common heritage representing basmati, Jahangir said.
“I’m sure we’ll come to a (positive) conclusion soon … the world knows that basmati comes from both countries,” he added.
If no agreement can be reached and the EU decides in favor of India, Pakistan could go to European courts, but the lengthy review process could leave its rice industry on edge.