March 30, 1998

Basmati Rice Patent

The (Merchant) Prince and the (Punjabi) Paupers

A U.S. rice patent has the potential to make Europe's Hans-Adam II "heir apparent" to South Asia's Basmati rice and its famous name. The Liechtenstein Prince's dreams of empire may be decided in a Texas law court.

Last September, RiceTec, Inc., an imaginative little company hailing from the tiny town of Alvin, Texas (barely a speed-bump on the road between Houston and Galveston), won U.S. patent #5,663,484 claiming the breeding of Asia's famous aromatic "Basmati" rice. The patent covers Basmati grown anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. RiceTec also slapped its brand on any breeding crosses involving 22 farmer-bred Basmati varieties from Pakistan - and, effectively - on any blending of Pakistani or Indian Basmati strains with the company's other proprietary seeds. Addinginsulttoinjury,RiceTec'svarietiesappeartobenothingmorethan"derivatives" of famous Green Revolution rices developed decades earlier by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. When news of the patent broke, the Government of India declared war, arguing that the patent jeopardizes an annual Basmati export market of Rs 1200 crores (approx. U.S.$277 million) and threatens the livelihood of thousands of Punjabi farmers.

The Punjab's Basmati Meaning either "Queen of Fragrance" or "Fragrant earth", Basmati is a slender, aromatic long- grain rice with an often nutty taste and an unusually delicate texture that grows best in the shadows of the Himalayas. For countless generations, Punjabi farm families in the region have nurtured the fragrant seeds, improving the yield and disease resistance of the fickle plant. The Punjab spans areas of both India and Pakistan. Basmati originated in this region as well as in the contested lands of Kashmir.

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