Geography, not biology

Indian basmati rice has gained hundreds of millions of dollars from intellectual property rights (IPRs) bestowed on it by the much-maligned WTO agreement. This is little known since the eco-jingoists dominating the debate in India have consistently spread disinformation that TRIPS, the WTO section on intellectual property, has only disadvantages for us. In fact TRIPS gives us several advantages too, like the bonanza in basmati rice exports.

This bonanza is now threatened indirectly by a patent given to a US company, Ricetec, for a new strain of what it claims is basmati rice. India must fight this. Before WTO, India had no legal basis to fight for its rights. Today, thanks to WTO, a fight is not only possible, but winnable.

In the Uruguay Round which led to the formation of WTO, the US (the world’s biggest rice exporter) forced Europe to lower its import; barriers on rice. The US rice business is centred in Arkansas, home state of President Clinton, and has a lot of clout. In 1995, the European Union (EU) agreed that the ‘ higher the value of rice it imported, the lower would be its import duty. ; The US believed its high-value rice would gain ground at the expense ‘ of cheap rice from Thailand and Vietnam.

However, the costliest rice in the world by far is Indian basmati rice, which fetches $ 800 to $ 950 per tonne against $ 350 per tonne for the best US rice. So, under the new rules, India and Pakistan demanded the biggest duty cuts for basmati rice. The EU agreed to cut the duty on Pakistani basmati (which is of lesser quality) by 50 ECUs per , tonne, and on Indian basmati by 250 ECUs per tonne (an ECU is a European currency unit, worth $ 1.107) .

This duty cut greatly increased the competitiveness of Indian basmati in Europe, which has the world’s highest demand for premium rice. Instead of being thrice as expensive as US rice, basmati became only a bit more expensive, and demand shot up. India’s basmati exports to Europe rose from 30,000 tonnes earlier to 130,000 tonnes. These exports are now worth over $ 100 million a year.

These gains were mainly at the expense of US exporters. To recover lost ground, some US exporters proposed to call their own aromatic, long-grained rice ‘basmati’, saying this was a generic rice variety. India protested to Europe that basmati was not a generic variety, it was a geographical indication of rice produced in northern India and Pakistan (just as champagne relates to sparking wine from the Champagne district of France, or feta cheese is goat cheese from Greece).

News reports in India constantly confuse patents with geographical indications. Patents are given for new strains of rice. But geographical indications relate to the area of production of a premium product. Much champagne is made in France from the Chardonnay grape variety. If Chardonnay grapes are made into sparkling wine in Australia, the product cannot be called champagne. And even if Australia develops and patents a new variety of Chardonnay, wine made from this cannot be called champagne.

For the same reason, India needs to argue that no new rice variety patented by Ricetec can be called basmati. Contrary to the screams of Indian eco-jingoists like Vandana Shiva, the key issue is not whether the variety patented by Ricetec is really new. The key issue is that Ricetec wants to call the new variety a sort of basmati. That is what India must attack as a violation of geographical indication. If Ricetec calls its variety aromatic long-grained rice, India has only limited interest in contesting the patent (which does not affect the growing of traditional varieties here). India’s main worry is that Ricetec should not be allowed to confuse patents with geographical indication. Many Indian eco-jingoists have, unwittingly, walked into this trap. Let us not get diverted by their shouts about possible bio-piracy by Ricetec. The strength of our legal claim rests on geography, not biology.

Patents are valid only for 20 years, geographical rights forever. Patents cover only new products, geographical indications only old ones. The expert committee, just appointed by the government, wants to contest the issue on biological patent grounds. This is barking up the wrong tree: We must contest the case on geographical grounds.

Let Ricetec call its new variety anything, but basmati. Let it be called Arkansas rice, or Clinton rice, or even Monica Lewinsky rice (after all, it is long, aromatic and cries out to be eaten). But do not call it basmati.

On what ground can we make such demands? Why should the US (or any other country) bother to listen to our plea? The answer is that, before the Uruguay Round, any country could have ignored Indian pleas on the matter. But Article 22 of the TRIPS section of the Uruguay Round provides for the protection of geographical indications. All WTO members are bound by this.

So, for the first time, Indian basmati rice has obtained international protection. India needs to enact a geographical appellation law to facilitate use of WTO protection.’

I am amazed that the debate on TRIPS in India has focujfed on patents and plant varieties, but ignored geographical indications. In fact, geographical rights are the most important part of TRIPS for India.

The US rice lobby is trying to confuse geographical indications with patents. Ricetec claims that basmati rice is a generic rice variety, just as durum wheat is a generic wheat variety. So, just as India can grow durum wheat, Ricetec says it can grow basmati rice. We have to press the point that basmati is a geographical and not a biological entity (several biologically distinct sorts of north Indian aromatic rice are all called basmati).

US agribusiness has persuaded their government to treat basmati as a generic variety for trade purposes. US export data now distinguishes between exports of regular milled’ and ‘basmati’ rice. We must use WTO to stop this mislabelling everywhere, in not just marketing, but trade data too (which can be the thin end of a big wedge).

Some time ago, Ricetec attempted to sell its long-grain rice in Europe under brand names like Texmati’ and ‘Kasmati’. This avoided violating geographical rights directly, but used the loophole of trademarks to insinuate that the rice was a sort of basmati. WTO rules allow India to plug the trademarks loophole too. Greece has already ruled against the use of these brand names by Ricetec. Other legal battles are in progress elsewhere.

The battle will go on, for hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. But fortunately, WTO rules have come to India’s rescue, and provided it with formidable ammunition. That lesson needs to be absorbed by all those who regard WTO and TRIPS as Satanic devices.

What do you think?