by Danielle Knight

Washington, 25 Apr 2000 (IPS) -- As part of a growing worldwide campaign against "biopiracy", a coalition of US and Indian groups are taking legal aim at US companies who are selling US rice they have falsely labelled under the unique names of Indian and Pakistani basmati rice and Thai's jasmine rice.

The Washington-based International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) and the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), based in New Delhi, want to stop US rice millers, producers and trade associations from marketing low quality US aromatic rice under the terms "basmati" and "jasmine" in order to receive a premium price.

"The current US policy of allowing virtually any aromatic rice to be labelled basmati or jasmine is nothing short of criminal," says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a project of ICTA.

The Texas company, RiceTec, Inc. for example, sells US grown rice as "Texmati" as "American basmati" and "jasmati" as "American Jasmine.'

Both groups filed legal petitions this month with two US government agencies to revise their laws to protect the jasmine and basmati rice types grown in Asia. The petitions say current US regulations allow US companies to deceive consumers and threaten the livelihoods of millions of Indian and Pakistani farmers who grow basmati rice and Thai farmers who grow jasmine rice.

Current US rice standards allow companies to use the terms "basmati" and "jasmine" as generic terms that can apply to rice grown anywhere.

One petition, filed with the US Department of Agriculture, demands that it amend its rice standards on "aromatic" rice to clarify that the term "basmati" can only be used for rice grown in India and Pakistan, and the word "jasmine" grown in Thailand.

"Since American consumers and farmers correctly believe that "Basmati" rice can only be produced in India and Pakistan and "Jasmine" rice in Thailand, the use of the descriptors "basmati" and "jasmine" in current US rice standards is misleading," says the petition.

The groups' proposal would make those of the US consistent with those of Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom's Code of Practice for Rice, says Kimbrell.

The other petition, filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), demanded the agency initiate a trade regulation to prevent US grown rice from being advertised or otherwise represented as "basmati" or "jasmine."

The groups are making their case under the FTC Act which prohibits "unfair or deceptive acts of practices in or affecting commerce."

Basmati rice is critical to the economies of India and Pakistan, says the petition. Each year India sells approximately $300 million' worth of Basmati rice. And it is counted among the nation's fastest growing exports. In Thailand - dependent on its rice exports to alleviate its economic downturn - jasmine fetches the steepest price among all Thai rice.

"When American companies steal the very names and strains of our indigenous rice, they threaten the lives of millions of farmers and their families in India, Pakistan, and Thailand," says Vandana Shiva, executive director of RFSTE.

The petitions do not address the disputes over rice breeding patents held by RiceTec. The Indian government is currently contesting a patent held by the company for a US hybrid rice that was crossed with traditional Indian Basmati, which has been cultivated by farmers for centuries on the foothills of the Himalayas - in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh.

The task of revoking a patent held by a US company is not impossible, but it remains a daunting - and expensive - task.

In 1997, the Indian government's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) scored a victory when it succeeded in convincing the US Patent and Trademark Office to revoke a patent granted to two US scientists on the use of turmeric powder as a healing agent.

It ruled that using the popular spice for medicinal purposes was not a new "invention" but a millennial old Indian practice.

But the CSIR did not win its case just by claiming traditional wisdom. It had to produce written documentation. It resorted to ancient Sanskrit texts and a paper published in 1953 in the Journal of the Indian Medical Association.

Thailand is worried that its famed jasmine is the next to be patented. Thai legislators are working to protect the nation's fragrant rice under a trademark before RiceTec or another foreign company acquires such certification.

While the Thai government originally accused RiceTec of obtaining jasmine rice strains for its 'jasmati' brand, the Philippines- based International Rice Research Institute says the US brand was developed from della, a variety that originated in Italy.

Just the brand name alone, however, has sparked demonstrations by farmers in Thailand and India who fear their livelihoods will be compromised by such US brands that mimic their reputed crops.

In 1998, hundreds of Thai rice farmers held a protest in front of the US embassy in Bangkok.

"Selling other rice varieties or even Thai jasmine rice grown in your country as 'jasmati' defames our farmers, destroys our rights and deceives your own consumers," they said in a letter to the US ambassador.

The government reportedly said that it was determining whether market prospects had been damaged by the proliferation of varieties like 'jasmati.' (SUNS4655)