India-U.S. Fight on Basmati Rice Is Mostly Settled
By SARITHA RAI
A Texas company’s attempt to patent a type of basmati rice became a touchstone for anti-globalization protest in the 1990’s. But the long-simmering issue was largely settled this week, when the United States granted a narrower patent to the company, Ricetec of Alvin, Tex.
The United States originally granted the patent in 1997, touching a nerve in India, leading to a challenge by the Indian government and igniting demonstrations against what was termed a piracy of emerging nations’ indigenous products.
After this week’s decision, the Indian government said it saw no reason for further dispute. The new patent is limited to a few variants of the rice and will not hamper export of its own basmati product, the government concluded.
Still, scientists in India are complaining about future problems while evaluating the impact, and opposition politicians are agitating for further action.
The protests in the late 1990’s were led by Vandana Shiva, who called Ricetec’s claim to basmati rice absurd. She termed the limited scope of the final patent largely a success. But, she warned, ”the battle against Ricetec is just the beginning of India’s battle against bio-piracy and theft of indigenous plant wealth.”
For most Indians, the basmati controversy went beyond the economic impact of one product. Basmati, an aromatic rice used in virtually every Indian kitchen, is considered a national heritage. The long-grain rice, whose grains remain petal-soft and separate after cooking, grows in the Punjab region in the north, and across the border in Pakistan.
In 1997, the United States initially granted a broad basmati patent to Ricetec, which developed several strains of rice marketed under various names as similar to basmati. Of the 20 claims made by the company, most related to the rice plant, with others covering the grain and farming methods.
The American decision created an uproar as bitter Indians expressed frustration that successive governments had let India lose claim to basmati, which had never been trademarked. India and its rival Pakistan said they would fight the patent, calling it a threat to the economic survival of thousands of farmers in the subcontinent. More than 50,000 people demonstrated in front of the United Sates Embassy against the patent.
At the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, India protested the agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, which had led to a spate of patents for western companies, including for basmati rice. Another coalition denounced the basmati rice patent at the Seattle meeting, and called on W.T.O. members to accept that the rights of farmers and communities precede intellectual property rights.
At the Summit of the Americas in Quebec, activists protested against the prospect of intellectual property protection that would work to the advantage of multinationals involved in genetic engineering of agricultural products — like basmati developed over hundreds of years — at the expense of small farmers in developing countries.
For years, India largely ignored any claim or legal protection for growers and marketers of basmati. A bill has been introduced to recognize produce as belonging to a specific geographical area, but it is still pending before a panel of the Parliament. Given that basmati is not patented by geographic location even within India, the country’s international patent appeal appears weak.
For over two decades ”basmati” has been used in the United States to describe long-grain aromatic rice grown domestically. This usage went unchallenged by India, so much so that the patent claims were under the plea of ”long usage” provided for in trade-related intellectual property rights.
The premium grain stacked up in American supermarkets under brand names like Calmati, which comes from California, and Texmati and Kasmati, which are marketed by Ricetec.
Indian basmati exporters dismiss these varieties as basmati imitations. The distinct aroma and the texture of basmati comes from the Indian soil irrigated by waters from the Himalayan rivers, they say.
India urged the United States Patent and Trade Office in April 2000 to re-examine certain Ricetec claims that India felt posed a threat to Indian basmati exports to the United States. In hundreds of pages of scientific evidence, India argued that its basmati varieties already had the characteristics claimed as unique by Ricetec.
India protested Ricetec’s claim to the term basmati, and insisted that the appellation should be reserved for rice grown in a specific region in India. The argument is much like the one that has been used successfully to limit Champagne to France and Scotch whiskey to Scotland.
Ricetec subsequently withdrew some 15 claims. The American patent office just issued a patent on the claims dealing with three strains of the rice developed by the company.
While the government said it was satisfied, opposition politicians stalled proceedings in the Indian Parliament demanding that the government challenge the patent.
On Tuesday, the commerce minister, Digvijay Singh, tried to pacify members of Parliament, saying Ricetec had received only a varietal patent so it could sell its rice as a superior strain of basmati. India could also develop its own different strains of basmati, he said.
Ms. Shiva, the protester, saw the narrowing of the patent as a significant accomplishment. ”What remains is a farmers’ battle, because Ricetec’s strains have been bred from traditional Indian and Pakistani basmati varieties,” she said. Activists will continue to urge the government to pursue a trademark battle for the basmati name.
But scientists, including Dr. S. A. Siddiq of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, remain skeptical about India’s ability to thwart piracy of traditional basmati strains. ”India exports a million tons of basmati a year, and India is complacent because the Ricetec patent does not hinder that,” Dr. Siddiq said.
The issue goes beyond mere protection of trade and export of the rice. ”The basmati patent came so suddenly that India has just woken up to the threat to its traditional plant wealth,” Dr. Siddiq said. ”We have to get our laws in place.”
Ms. Shiva says that allowing multinational companies to patent indigenous produce and knowledge is a theft and has resulted in the revoking of a European patent for the traditional Indian neem tree. Patent fights are on for medicinal turmeric and tamarind.
”Granting exclusive patent rights amounts to stealing economic options of daily survival from the developing world,” Ms. Shiva said.
Photo: Ratan Das, a Calcutta rice vendor, fills a bag with basmati rice, which is extremely popular in India. (Agence France-Presse)(pg. C3