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The woes of Super Basmati in EU

March 08, 2004

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The dawn of 2004 saw the doomed fate of Pakistan's Super Basmati in European Union (EU), which ruled for many years due to its superb grain quality. A blow on the export of Basmati rice was dealt by the Cereal Management Committee (CMC) of the EU that excluded it for abatement concession of approximately euro 250 per tonne with effect from January 1, 2004. The European Commission (EC) has formally notified its decision through a notification issued on December 24.

Rice imports into Europe carry a customs duty of 264 euro per tonne. But since 1996, the EU has been giving a concession of 250 euro for a tonne of Basmati- a uniform rate on brown (unpolished) rice irrespective of parentage. The actual purpose of initiatives of the UK's Food Standards Authority (FSA) and the CMC was to protect consumers from mixing of cheap grains - Sherbati, Pusa, Basmati 198, Basmati 385, etc.

On January 24, 2004, the EU temporarily rolled back its decision of lifting abatement facility of euro 250 per tonne on Super Basmati. The decision would provide a relief for only three months to rice exporters, as the certificate of authentication issued by the Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) would be valid up to March 31, 2004, and the shipment reaching the destination by June 30, 2004.

The regulation of the EU is not a sudden decision as the moves were known to various ministries and the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan (Reap) since December 1999.

However, like many other issues, it is a saga of our usual negligence, lethargy and ad-hocism. It also reflects failure on the diplomatic front, as France with 10 votes equivalent remained absent. Other countries like Italy, Spain and Greece also followed neutral stance.

The decision would definitely hurt export of 80,000-90,000 tonnes of Basmati rice to Europe which is around $53 million foreign exchange in a year. The exclusion of Super Basmati from the abatement list would make it hard to compete against other traditional Basmati varieties with the privileges of abatement.

Basmati rice is a unique commodity, which can grow only in certain specific areas of Pakistan and India. Although, Basmati rice can be grown in other regions but its quality characteristics would not be the same as in indigenous regions.

Many physical and physiochemical parameters such as the length, width, translucency, degree of milling, colour, moisture content, shape size, whiteness, chalkiness, amylose content, protein content, gel consistency, volume of expansion of cooked rice, aroma, stickiness, and hardness and much more are the grain quality indicators. Therefore, not a single criterion can distinguish Basmati rice from other rices.

Basmati 370 was the first traditional variety released in 1933 from Kala Shah Kaku Rice Research Station (RRI KSK) during British Raj. It is the result of pure-line selection from a locally adapted landrace. Basmati 370 soon became popular among consumers.

After that, other rice research stations have been established in the subcontinent for the development of improved strains from local strains. These selections resulted in the development of several strains like Dehradun Basmati, Type 3, Pakistan Basmati, Kernel Basmati, etc.

Besides Basmati 370, other famous/noticeable rice varieties released by the RRI, KSK are Pakistan Basmati (in the year 1968), Basmati 198 (year 1972), Basmati 385 (year 1985) and Super Basmati (year 1996). Among these, Super Basmati gained an immediate popularity due to its aroma, taste, fine grain and other quality characters.

Since the release of Super Basmati, the Pakistan rice export has jumped from 0.45 MMT in 1994-1995 to one MMT in 1999-2000. The availability of surplus Basmati rice enabled our rice exporters to increase their share of export in international market against their sole competitor India.

This has resulted in the increased share of basmati rice export in the EU market and Pakistani rice exporters started to capture the EU market gradually. The rapidly increasing share of Super Basmati in the European market against the Indian Basmati turned into a trade war. The Indian lobby in the EU became active and they started the false propaganda against Super Basmati.

The Pakistan Basmati rice command a premium price in international market due to its unique aroma, long and slender grain and elongation after cooking. This premium plus its increased popularity both in domestic and international market makes Basmati rice a target for adulteration with cheaper, long grained non-Basmati varieties.

A meeting was held at the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), Lahore, and attended by representatives from Reap, the RRI KSK, the National Institute for Biotechnology and the Genetic Engineering (NIBGE), the Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) and other institutes (Parc/Narc).

The issue was to discuss the DNA testing in the UK as described by the FSA. A DNA committee was immediately formed to actively pursue the development of DNA Test in Pakistan and could join the FSA-UK to become an affiliate of their programme.

No separate funds were provided to establish the DNA Testing Laboratory in Pakistan. However, the NIBGE, Faisalabad, pursued the matter on its own and established world-class facilities for DNA Testing.

Later in the year 2003, a regulation (EC) No. 1503/96 came into light and this regulation states that the preferential import regime of Basmati should include a more accurate definition of Basmati, which should benefit from the duty abatement.

In view of this regulation a more strict definition of Basmati rice had been adopted and showed the intention of exclusion of Super Basmati of Pakistan and Pusa basmati and Sherbati of India from the approved list.

A meeting was called by the Grains and Feeds Traders Association (Gafta) in the UK on November 13, 2003 for the discussion on the Code of Practice for Basmati rice in the UK.

Pakistani officials along with the representative from Reap and Punjab government attended the meeting. Although they claimed that major concerns of the EC regarding the price and the geographical indication had been addressed properly but all in vain.

The draft of this meeting issued by the FSA, the UK, differentiated Super Basmati and Pusa Basmati by placing asterisks "*" on premier Basmati - Basmati 370, Kernel, Taraori, Dehradun etc. Later, the 15-member European Union technically ousted the Super Basmati rice of Pakistan by removing it from duty exemption list despite the backing from the UK, Germany, Denmark and Austria.

Although the Indian rice exporters offered to join hands in order to make a joint strategy against this decision as their Pusa Basmati was also excluded together with the Super Basmati.

Indians were well aware of this regulation and they had already anticipated the fate of Pusa Basmati.

Moreover, the decision will not affect the export of Indian basmati rice in the EU as they will compensate it with other traditional basmati. India's offer for joint strategy is only a clever move to equate the Pusa with the Super Basmati, although they know that the Super is far better than the Pusa.

There is an urgent need to resolve this matter on priority basis. The government should take strict measures against the exporters who quote comparatively lower price of Super Basmati, one of the reasons of exclusion. The supply of adulterated (blended) Basmati thus bringing numerous problems for our genuine exporters should be dealt with exemplary punitive measures.

Who would be the beneficiary from this decision? India would solely be benefited as India and Pakistan are the only growers of Basmati rice as mentioned above.

Moreover, with the exclusion of Super Basmati, Pakistan would not have much (Basmati 370 and Kernel) to export to the EU, and India would be ready to get recognized its false claim that Basmati is traditionally of the Indian origin. Indian rice exporters are ready to recapture the EU market as their share had been gradually decreasing after the increasing popularity of Super Basmati because of its fine and slender grain, pleasant aroma and best cooking quality.

Keeping in view the gravity of the situation, the authorities from the ministries of agriculture, commerce, EPB and Reap joined hands to draw strategy for the 3rd Gafta meeting which was held on January 29, 2004 in London in order to protect Pakistan Basmati and its export in the UK and the EU markets.

Gafta initiated a process to evolve the Code of Practice (CoP) for Basmati rice in the UK. A five-member official delegation of Pakistan headed by Tariq Iqbal Puri, Vice Chairman, the EPB, represented Pakistan in the meeting.

The meeting resulted in the temporarily removal of all blockades of export of Super Basmati to the UK and Europe. The bumper crop of this season will have unhindered access to the European markets. This will have a positive impact in stabilizing the price in local market and providing relief to millions of poor farmers.

For a smooth export of Basmati rice (whether milled or brown) in the EU, we need to strictly obey the FSA guidelines of Basmati rice including the DNA fingerprinting.

To comply with this we have to establish an affiliated Basmati DNA Testing Programme in Pakistan. This would benefit our exporters to get certified their shipments prior to export. The DNA testing of the consignments at importers end would be very much costly and will make our Basmati less competitive.

Safeguarding the future of Basmati export in the interest of Pakistan demands the following:

A: A unified approach in future is needed from all rice exporters (brown and milled) to strengthen the Super Basmati status in the EU;

B: a final meeting of Gafta to decide code of practice of Basmati rice will be held in the UK on March 17. Our delegation should present all the relevant record and published documents that the Rice Research Station, Kala Shah Kaku in British Raj, is the real custodian of land races of Basmati rice. Moreover, original Basmati (Basmati 370) originated from the RRI, KSK in 1933.

C: A workshop prior to Gafta meeting will be held on March 16, to inform about the standards of the FSA, UK. Our technical members of Basmati rice delegation must attend this scientific workshop. This will in future help our exporters to comply the standards of Basmati rice in the UK/Europe.

D: Future basmati breeding programme must have an element of selection programme among the historical landraces.

E: Any evolved basmati (EB) must have one of the parents from the approved list of historical landraces.

F: Pakistani rice exporters should make use of excellent indigenous facilities available in public sectors institutions to meet various standards of the WTO/SPS/CBD as well as of the FSA and the CMC.G: The drafted Code of Practice (CoP) on Basmati also restricts the boundaries of historical landrace thus growing Basmati in southern Punjab or Sindh could damage our future export to Europe.