Whether or not you like your rice fragrant or aroma-free, can affect the livelihoods of thousands of Pakistani basmati rice growers.
Basmati is a rice variety that has a special aroma and flavor, along with fine quality long grain, cultivated in the province of Punjab, which often fetches more than double, even triple the price of non-basmati benchmarked rice.
Pakistani basmati exports used to be half of non-basmati exports in terms of tonnage, but with the same dollar value. This balance has now shifted so that basmati exports are now around one-quarter of other varieties in terms of export volume and value, respectively.
The real question, however, is whether to continue producing new rice varieties, or just concentrate on a particular niche.
Growers must choose between developing high-yield crops that may have little or no aroma, or sticking to a particular variety with good aroma and quality to achieve similar or (hopefully) better returns.
Basmati rice has a lower yield compared to alternative varieties, but this is more than offset by premium price it commands. Although for decades Pakistan has been able to capitalize on this unique commodity, over the last 7-8 years basmati production has suffered from low yields and quality problems.
New pest-resistant varieties of basmati have not been introduced due to inadequate support for research and development. At the same time, the pressure to generate greater revenue has focused attention on high-yield rice varieties, whose cultivation has infringed on the basmati heartland of Punjab.
Declining cultivated areas and the relatively low yield of a niche commodity like basmati has thus brought local rice producers to a crossroads.
The aroma of basmati rice is unique to Punjab. Pakistan could therefore officially register the aroma linked to the specific geographic location with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Trade Organization to maximize gains from the product’s high value in global markets.
But registration alone may not be enough for Punjabi basmati to regain its share of the international rice trade. Developing better varieties, improving farming practices, refining processing techniques, and introducing brand marketing are also needed. Figuring out the optimal use of scarce water resources is likewise crucial.
How to secure a bright future for Pakistani basmati
A recent ADB-organized workshop in Lahore was the first in a series of similar sessions planned throughout 2017 to support the future of Pakistani basmati rice in the light of the challenges mentioned above. ADB is providing technical assistance to analyze the whole production and value chain – from seed varieties to export markets.
Many years of free market policies implemented by the government, coupled with the removal of most subsidies, has made basmati resilient to tough competition from other producers.
While Punjabi farmers still consider most of the subsidized competition from other countries as unfair, their belief in the superior appeal of basmati’s fragrance makes them confident about the grain’s long-term prospects and its ability to compete against other varieties in international markets.
Faissal Hassan, a basmati rice farmer who attended the Lahore workshop, believes the future of basmati is bright, although it needs some intelligent targeted interventions to recover lost ground. Among these interventions would be more strenuous efforts to preserve the special quality of basmati and to highlight its purity and unique aroma in marketing campaigns.
Indeed, the international demand for aromatic rice remains strong even in the face of stiff competition from non-aromatic varieties, according to Imran Shahzad of Rice Partners, a basmati processor and exporter.
If growers can improve farming and harvesting methods such that produce of consistent quality can be produced, Shahzad explained, international buyers will continue to pay the premium.
This assessment is particularly encouraging when all too often farming lobbies clamor for protection from competition and demand state subsidies—despite basmati’s higher value—or price controls.
The workshop was part of an ongoing study on Pakistani basmati as well as alternative rice varieties to draw lessons for the future, and help the product regain its competitiveness in international markets.
Basmati is a key part of Pakistan’s culture, as well as its rural economy. With a bit more attention to quality, it can take its rightful place in world markets.