TALL and slender with a luminescent white complexion - this could be a description in a stereotype matrimonial in an Indian newspaper or it could be a vague attempt to describe the king of rice - basmati.
The mystical values basmati evokes across the world, other rice varieties do not even attempt to compete for - almost as if the luminescence of the grain is also the halo it wears. While countries battle over it and governments, traders, farmers and non-governmental organisations split hair trying to protect what they believe is basmati, companies in the West take out patents and trademarks over basmati using novel definitions and measurements. But few have dared to ask what it is. What is it that makes a trader detect a handful of basmati grains from a mix and pay a premium to get it? What is it that drives two neighbouring countries that harbour little trust on other issues to join hands to protect something they both believe is theirs by tradition? "It is the basmati experience," answers R S Seshadri, director of United Riceland, one of the biggest exporters of basmati in India.
But the recent controversy over RiceTec, the US-based company's rice patents exemplifies the quagmire that basmati has landed many experts and scientists into.
In 1997, the US patents office granted RiceTec permission to market its product claiming that their rice is 'similar or superior to basmati'. Ironically, the Indian government claimed this as its victory, arguing that RiceTec's broad claims over the grain had been dismissed. But now the battleground has moved to India itself. And the 'trademark' basmati can only be protected using the geographical appellation system, which protects products associated with a particular territory, country, place or region from duplication. But for basmati to gain a geographical appellation, the region in which it is traditionally grown must be defined and, for that, the nature of the grain should be understood.
Science and mysticism in a grain
A SCIENTIFIC definition of basmati remains elusive, despite numerous measures of its quality. It is the traders and farmers who have for ages handled the grain and identified it instantly from experience. The next best bet is, in all probability, the cook serving the pulao on one's table. There are a few distinct features that they are all on the look out for - a set of basic characteristics that helps the king stand above its poorer cousins. Basmati, for one, is aromatic. But Seshadri warns, "So are many other varieties. All basmati varieties are aromatic. But not all aromatic grains are of basmati." Basmati varieties have a distinct nutty aroma. The unique fragrance, found initially in the plant when it flowers, lingers on in the grain. Scientists believe, an aromatic volatile organic compound, 2-acetyl-1 pyrroline, gives basmati the aroma, which the arrti (trader) in the mandi (grain market) keeps a 'nose out for'.
And whether the grain is from the fields in Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh or from the foothills of the Shivalik mountain range, the other characteristic of the delectable rice that immediately catches the eye is the length and breadth of the grain. It has a specific length to breadth ratio that no other grain matches. It has an average length of about 7 millimetres (mm) and a breadth, on an average, of about 2.5 mm. These two measurements together give it the distinct length-breadth ratio. Most other rice varities are generally rotund when compared to the 'lean' and thinner basmati, says S Balaravi, additional director-general of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research.
They also don't parallel the basmati varieties when cooked. The basmati grain, when boiled, elongates far more than any other rice grain. "Every grain stretches by about 70-120 per cent of its precooked size," says Balaravi. "One cannot observe this in other rice varieties because the starch molecules in basmati are arranged in a specific fashion. When boiled, the molecular arrangement stretches the grain. At times it stretches to almost two times its original size," he explains.
He explains the other characteristic starch quality that makes basmati unique. The basmati grain never gels upon cooking. Each one, in fact, remains separated. The levels of the two types of starch found in the basmati - amylose and amylopectine - ensure this. The ratio of these starch types also give distinctness to the rice grain. The amylose content determines the elongation of the grain. It is considered to be a crucial trait that is examined during scientific evaluation. While on one hand it makes the grain kernel firmer, it also reduces the stickiness and glossiness of the cooled product. The ratio between the two types of starch, called the alkali spreading value, determines the stickiness of the rice. The alkali spreading value is a simple way of ascertaining the quality of basmati. Classifying rice varieties is useful in determining which are appropriate for use in parboiling, quick cooking, puffing, extruding, and other rice cooking and processing technologies. In basmati the amylose content ranges between 24-32 per cent, depending upon the variety of basmati used.
The immeasurable qualities
But factors like the alkali spreading value are just a handful of parameters that have been developed to put a few traits of the grain on a measurable scale. Seshadri points out: "For each one trait that the scientific community has put to scale there are numerous that it cannot quantify. Even the measurements they have developed are incomplete in themselves." He specifically mentions the volatile organic compound 2-acetyl-1 pyrroline that scientists believe is the principal chemical behind the aroma that emanates from basmati. Besides this, there are about 100 more compounds that are aromatic. "If the compound has been established as the main chemical behind the aroma, then why is the aroma not replicated in the hybrid varieties developed across the world? Quite obviously, science, at present, does not have all the answers to the rice riddle," he argues. There is a ring of truth to this argument. One reason why India was unable to fight all the claims made in the RiceTec patent was the lack of scientific evidence to prove the Indian claim (see box: Stretching science).
Seshadri also gives a mouth-watering example to score his point: take a single cooked grain of rice in your mouth and enjoy it. Unlike any other rice, this grain will not break when eaten. It will roll around in one's mouth till it slowly dissolves. How does one quantify this and other such intangible qualities, he wonders. Balaravi agrees, "Not all traits can be measured, there is a mythical element to basmati as well. For some it evokes a cultural linkage that is hard to define."
Another side to the story is the fact that the diacritical traits of basmati have as much to do with the region in which the rice is grown as the chemicals within the grain or plant. The traditional basmati-growing areas, say both Balaravi and Seshadri, have been Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Shivalik foothills of Dehra Dun, in India and Punjab in Pakistan. There too the traditional varieties of basmati grown vary. All of these varieties may contain 2-acetyl-1 pyrroline but the way it relates with the agro-climatic conditions of the regions makes all the difference. The Taraori basmati grown in the Karnal, in Haryana, is known for its aroma, but the Dehra Dun basmati finds it's own patrons, who are ready to swear by its grain quality. But the aroma is slowly losing out to the scent of money. The high yield varieties developed in India, like Pusa basmati, compare poorly with the traditional varities like Karnal basmati but get more money for the farmer. "The improved varieties give better yields but at the cost of the exquisite aroma of basmati," says GSChatha, president of the Punjab Rice Millers Association.
An indication of intent
SO WHAT holds India back from coming out with a geographical indicator for basmati? To take a GI on basmati, India needs to first comprehend what is basmati. This must be done keeping two things in mind. One, the basic traits that basmati varieties manifest and two, the region in which the assortment of varieties grow with these traits in full bloom. Basmati has a specific DNA character, which when grown in specific agro-climatic conditions allows it to be expressed. Even within the basmati group of varieties, the DNA character does vary. Building upon this, the Hyderabad-based Centre for DNA fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) has devised a protocol to detect the hybrid varieties from the traditional varieties by using as many as 15 DNA markers.
"The pure basmati varieties are a product of continuous selection by farmers. The hybrids have been developed as an alternative to the poor-yield, photosensitive traditional varieties," says Syed E Hasnain, director of CDFD. Chatha too is of the same opinion: "The improved varieties provide more yield but at the cost of the exquisite aroma of basmati," agrees Chatha.
Hasnain explains, "The hybrids have a distinct genetic character. At CDFD we have fingerprinted the two sets of rice to identify one from the other. A proposal to set up a DNA-based certification unit for basmati is now pending with the Union ministry of commerce.
But others advise caution. The Hyderabad-based Directorate of Rice Research does not want the government to split the basmati family into traditional and evolved varieties. But rice traders believe that while hybrid varieties like Pusa basmati must be included in the geographical appellation, all rice must be carefully labelled and the variety clearly mentioned for the consumer.
Once the geographical area is delineated and the characteristics demarcated, it becomes rather easy to comprehend what is basmati, or in the least, which rice variety is not basmati. So why has it not been understood in India as yet? There are two reasons.
One, the lack of scientific information and two, the lack of political will, weakened further by a section of exporters and farmer-lobbies who stand to lose if basmati becomes a well-defined product with a geographical appellation (GI). Under the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) clause, : good originating in the territory of a member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin,' can gain a geographical appellation. Under the clause the original product gets protection from being duplicated, just as is provided to Champagne in France and Scotch whiskey in Scotland. For India to do the same for basmati, it needs to promulgate a law for geographical indication of products, which has been in place since 1999. But the act is not enforceable as the rules for its implementation continue to do the rounds in the Union ministry of commerce. Appallingly, the ICAR has not even been consulted to formulate the rules, tell sources within the council. If and when India does enforce the act, it can seek a GI for basmati under it and then take it up either bilaterally with the European union (EU) or approach the World Trade Organisation to enforce it in countries that are markets for Indian basmati.
The advantages of seeking a GI are quite obvious. It will make it easier to prevent companies that project basmati as generic names to sell their own derived lines of rice as basmati. The market for Indian basmati can then be protected.
Not in their grain
But vested interests continue to create hurdles. For one, the GI has to be over a cogent region, where the rice species have been grown traditionally. Even repetitive production of the particular product from one region is enough to get a GI. One need not even prove a consistent quality of the product. But the problem arises when politicians skew the debate by demanding that regions like Rajasthan, which too have been growing basmati for sometime now, be included in the GI. The Rajasthan agriculture marketing board, in particular, has encouraged farmers in Kota and Bundi to grow basmati for export. Rajasthan grows rice in about 0.163 million hectares, the main rice producing areas falling in Bundi, Kota, Udaipur, Ganganagar, Dungarpur, and Banswara districts. Media reports speak of the incensed farmers of that region. Sources in the ICAR say that most of this trouble is also the result of politicians inciting trouble to gain political mileage. A leading basmati trader in India, wishing to remain anonymous, says, "Today you grant a GI to Rajasthan, tomorrow you'll give one to Karnataka. What's stopping Kerala from asking for the same? Do we want to claim that basmati is an arid region rice variety?" The problem is very real. If the region claimed under the geographical indication is not logically correct, India might stand to lose the monopoly it enjoys along with Pakistan over basmati trade. Companies like RiceTec can then claim basmati to be a generic name and not the name of a region-specific product.
And the exporters in India, claim some experts, are as much to blame for the tangle basmati trade has got into. They opine that taking out a GI alone will not help. The exporters and manufacturers of packaged rice will have to get out of their old habit of mixing up grains of traditional varieties of basmati with other hybrid varieties. In India, the exporters or manufacturers are not required to label the product content. While the farmer gets the price for his crop according to the variety of basmati he grows, the consumer of Indian basmati, whether in India or abroad, is duped regularly. The traditional, more aromatic varieties get a premium over other varieties of basmati. Industry sources say the traders very regularly mix all kinds of basmati. They point out that though brand names for packaged basmati are today commonplace, no one is able to tell whether the branded basmati is Pusa basmati, Karnal basmati or Dehra Dun basmati. The customer is charged a similar premium for an inferior quality. This is the very reason why a section of traders have been opposing and discrediting the move to use the CDFD technology of basmati fingerprinting for detection of variety being sold. UK already conducts these tests on basmati imported from Pakistan and India.
The route for India seems quite straightforward. Contest dubious science spewed out by private companies with authentic research that is properly conducted and well documented. Take out a GI on basmati. Take out a clear, defensible and cogent GI. Then pull up the exporters and traders to conform to strict quality standards. Activate the work of the Basmati Development Fund - the fund set by the Union ministry of commerce to help protect trade in basmati. And, as one trader puts it: "Let the exporters pay to protect their profits, don't consume public money on defending basmati. But do protect it and fight it out in which ever country it's required." This is an age of trade wars and the only two weapons India needs in its armour are science and the political will to use the scientific research rationally.