Saudi threat to India's basmati

India Today | New Delhi September 22, 2009

Dinesh Sharma

The Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is advising Saudi Arabia in its foray into agriculture outsourcing.

Though the top global rice research organisation's move is aimed at ensuring food security for the Saudis, it could jeopardise basmati exports from India in future.

Private investors and government agencies from Saudi Arabia have been acquiring arable land in African countries for food production so that growing demand at home could be met, and dependence on rice imports from India could be reduced.

Now, Saudi Arabia has sought help from the IRRI in its endeavour so that aromatic and long- grain rice could be grown on land acquired in African countries such as Mali, Senegal and Sudan and sent back home.

Currently, most of the needs of Saudi Arabia and other West Asian countries for this variety of rice are met through imports from India and Pakistan in the form of basmati.

India currently exports nearly $500 million worth of basmati and $102 million worth of non-basmati rice to Saudi Arabia.

Top IRRI officials led by its director general Robert Zeigler met government officials, private investors and bankers in Riyadh to discuss possibilities of future cooperation on March 7 and 8.

The visit was "facilitated" by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) which has launched a fiveyear, $1.5 billion initiative to help enhance food production in the Islamic world after the food crisis last year.

The minutes of the meeting-probably released accidentally on IRRI's website recently-clearly show that it is willing to help Saudi Arabia.

"West Asia is a major rice importer and the supply is not always insured when only few countries (currently five) are net exporters. Currently, available aromatic rice varieties are not adapted to tropical conditions. However, with concerted research efforts over the long run, varieties with high- grain quality could be developed that are adapted to these conditions," Zeigler is quoted as saying in the note on his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Al-Sadhan, a top official in Saudi Arabia's commerce and industry ministry, sought the IRRI's help in "efforts to produce rice in areas that are not being traditionally used for rice production". Zeigler's advice was to invest in countries that are not highly populated and have good resources and climate for rice production.

Potential countries mentioned during the meeting include Ethiopia, Egypt, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mali and Southern Brazil.

The institute has been engaged in several studies on aromatic rice varieties like basmati. Its recently published research on the genetic origins of fragrance in rice has found "a genetic variant that could enable researchers to develop fragrant rice varieties that appeal to the tastes of specific cultures". It has been found that gene responsible for fragrance in basmati comes from Japonica class of rice and not Indica.

"The real worry is the IRRI may help Saudi Arabia produce aromatic rice varieties in Pakistan where these countries have bought large tracts of lands," food policy commentator Devinder Sharma said. "India and Pakistan are already bitter rivals in the Basmati export segment." "The involvement of an international agricultural research centre in an obvious land grab situation is inappropriate," said Shalini Bhutani of Grain, an NGO based in Manila and Barcelona.

The IRRI spokesperson confirmed the meeting in Saudi Arabia, but denied any involvement in overseas land acquisitions. "The IRRI is not involved in any projects on land acquisition for rice production, nor do we provide advice on land acquisition."
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