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Basmati — identity crisis solved

TAPOVAN IS a village near Rishikesh in the Dehradun area of Uttaranchal. Its fame comes from the highly prized Basmati rice it produces. The story told about this Dehra Dun Basmati is that when a shopkeeper bought and took it to his home in Punjab and cooked it, the whole village knew about his arrival from the aroma of the Basmati. The European chronicler Jean Baptiste Travernier has written: "All the rice grown in this country possesses a particular quality causing it to be much esteemed. Its grains are half as small as that of common rice, and when it is cooked snow is not whiter than it is, besides which, it smells like musk and all the nobles of India eat no other. When you wish to make an acceptable present to anyone in Persia, you take him a sack of this rice".

Such has been the fame of Basmati rice for centuries. Drs. R.K. Singh, U.S. Singh and G.S. Khush, who have edited the eminently readable book called "Aromatic Rices" (Oxford IBH, New Delhi, 2000 - from where I have taken the above passage), detail the essential characteristics of the Basmati, the Jasmine rice of Thailand and other scented rices of South and Southeast Asia. There are over 2000 cultivars of rice known in the world. A scientist called J.C. Glaszman took the trouble of examining 1688 of these for common characteristics, and found that over 1600 of them fell into six different groups. Aromatic types fell into groups I, V and VI, and the Basmati group into group V.

What tells basmati apart?

Khush tells us that all aromatic rices of Southern and Southeasern Asia originated in the Himalayan foothills of U.P., Bihar and Terai Nepal, and dispersed out of here. Of these, the most talked about today is the Basmati rice. The Bas comes from the Sanskrit root Vas from fragrance and mati, a corruption from mayup for ingrained or inborn. Dr. V. P. Singh of IARI writes in the above book that though as many as 86 varieties have been classified as basmati, only 18 of them qualify under the strict basmati standards. And what are these characteristics? Length is one; the grain should be long (6.61 - 7.5 mm) or very long (more than 7.50 mm). Shape or length-to-width ratio is another. This needs to be over 3.0 in order to qualify as basmati. The colour of a basmati is translucent, creamy white. Upon cooking, the texture should be firm and tender without splitting, and it should be non-sticky. (This quality is derived from the amylose content in the rice. If this value is 20-22 per cent, the cooked rice does not stick. The glutinous, sticky variety preferred by the chopsticks users has 0-19 per cent amylose). The rice elongates almost twice upon cooking but does not fatten much. And the most characteristic of them all is the aroma. Incidentally, the aroma in Basmati arises from a cocktail of 100 compounds — hydrocarbons, alcohols, aldehydes and esters. A particular molecule of note, detected by Dr. R.G. Buttery and others, is 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline. Buttery went ahead to patent the use of this compound to flavour normal rice and other food items.

The basmati patent

Basmati is produced largely in Punjab and Western U.P, and in Pakistan. And these are the two major exporting countries of this rice in the world. It is worth noting that while the staple is wheat in Pakistan, they grow and export rice in large amounts, about half as much as India does. The earnings from basmati export have been substantial. In the year 2000-2001, India exported 850,000 tons of basmati and earned Rs. 21.42 billion. This is the basis of the current patent fight between India and the U. S- based company called RiceTec Inc, in Alvin, Texas, which filed a patent in the US patent office for a product it has made and called Basmati. In late 1997, this company was granted a patent to call the aromatic rice grown outside India `Basmati'. RiceTec had been trying to enter the international Basmati market with brands like `Kasmati' and `Texmati' described as b-type, with minimal success. However, with the patent rights, RiceTec will now be able to not only call its aromatic rice basmati within the U. S, but also label it as basmati for its exports. The Economic Times exclaims: "Patenting Basmati in the U. S is like snatching away our history and culture." Many have felt that the patent should not be granted since basmati is Indian property, and allowing this patent would open the floodgates for piracy of many other products that have been painstakingly honed to perfection over generations by people whose only "fault" has been not documenting their processes. When India fought granting of patent to RiceTec, a U. S court ruled that the company did invent new technologies and that the patent is valid.

Geographic indicators

The fight then turned to the nomenclature. India is currently involved in protecting the name "Basmati" as a geographic indicator. In other words, basmati is a term that should be restricted to the product from this geographic location, much as champagne produced in the U. S cannot be called so; it is termed "sparkling wine". Geographic indicators are a useful concept since they protect native wisdom, technologies and traditional efforts from being hijacked. Article 22-24 of the TRIPS agreement provides for the protection of geographic indicators (GI's) or prevention of this misuse. Under this, bioresources traditionally nurtured by the local community inhabiting the particular region should be deemed as belonging to that region.

According to TRIPS, members of WTO should enact laws to provide for the registration of GIs and make it possible to prevent the buyer and the public from being misled about the geographic origin of the product. Imagine if the geographical indicator restriction is not put in place, there could be Darjeeling tea from Denver, Mysore Rasam from Massachusetts, or Ratnagiri Alphonso mangoes from Rochester.

`Daane daane pe likha hai'

The case for geographic indicators becomes stronger if there are molecular or constituent markers that can be uniquely identified in a product to a region. Such an effort has recently been made from Hyderabad, at the CCMB and the CDFD laboratories, both in collaboration with the Directorate of Rice Research, also at Hyderabad.

Using specific markers in the DNA sequences of well-characterised and accepted traditional basmati rice strains (TB), these two laboratories have compared them with non-basmati varieties (NB) and also "elite" evolved lines of basmati (EB). DNA fingerprinting immediately tells the TB apart from others. Ramesh Aggarwal, J. Rama Devi and Lalji Singh of CCMB, working with Shobha Rani of DRR, compared the DNA patterns of the Indian basmati varieties with others, including the `Texmati' of RiceTec, and found that the latter was not connected with the Indian strains. Thus, to use the word basmati or any other "mati" would be misleading! Their work will appear shortly in the journal called Theoretical and Applied Genetics.

Concurrently, J. Nagaraju, M. Kathirvel, R. Ramesh Kumar, and S.E. Hasnain of CDFD have collaborated with E. A. Siddiq of DRR as well. (It was Dr. Siddiq who had earlier come out with an easy and reliable procedure to quantify the aroma content of scented rices). This group has used special PCR methods and published their findings in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . They show that all basmati varieties of Indian and Pakistani origin trace their ancestry to a single land race, and that these are different from the EB and NB rices.

Such typing becomes important to tell apart the traditional product from others. It also helps in strengthening the case for protecting the name "Basmati", which is associated with the special produce of sub-Himalayan India (and Pakistan), from being usurped. RiceTec has produced a new variety, for which we wish them well but we should also tell them to call their product by some other name — not basmati or any other mati, since it misleads the buyer. A rose is a rose is a rose, and basmati is basmati is basmati. Nothing else is.

D. Balasubramanian

L. V. Prasad Eye Institute
Hyderabad 500 034

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