Basmati rice varieties, including the world’s longest grain developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), are under threat in the export market after countries such as Qatar and Jordan started following the maximum residue limit (MRL) standards set by the European Union (EU).

However, IARI’s new disease resistant varieties and proposed domestic standards by food quality regulator FSSAI may help India offer the safest aromatic rice to the world.

The basmati industry simultaneously fears that the proposed FSSAI standards on MRL — which are even stricter than Codex, which is normally followed worldwide — will bring basmati exports to a halt. The All India Rice Exporters Association (AIREA) has urged the Centre not to implement the proposed MRL with regard to rice.

Dipping exports

Basmati rice exports to European Union dropped 35 per cent to 2.2 lakh tonne (lt) in 2021-22 from the previous year due to qualitative restrictions, while the overall exports of the aromatic varieties to all countries dropped 15 per cent to 39.5 lt. Though exports to the UAE and Lebanon increased in the last fiscal, it is still lower than the highs experienced previously. Three main varieties — Pusa Basmati (PB) 1121 (world’s first most elongated rice after cooking), PB 1509 and PB 1401 — have a share of about 90 per cent in basmati exports, sources said.

For instance, exports to the UAE was about 2.6 lt last year, compared to about 3 lt in 2018-19. Similarly, exports to Lebanon dropped by a quarter in 2020-21, and last year, it increased marginally to about 9,300 tonnes. Though the industry has expressed apprehension about Egypt, which has also started following EU’s norms in MRL, it has been been increasing every year for the last five years. The UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar and EU together had a share of 16 per cent in India’s total Basmati export last year.

The FSSAI norms of MRLs were first notified in December 2018, after which it published a draft notification in August 2020, wherein MRLs of some pesticides are made very stringent. There are 18 pesticides used in the paddy crop (including Basmati) for which FSSAI has proposed to change MRLs. Out of the same, Acephate and Chlorpyriphos are among nine pesticides in which concerns have been raised in EU, sources said.

Once implemented...

The MRL of Carbendazim and Cypermethrin is at 2 (mg/kg) each, according to the 2018 notification of FSSAI, which has been proposed to be reduced to 0.05 and 0.01, respectively. “We are unable to comply with even 2018 norms of FSSAI. If the revised notification of 2020 is implemented, the norms of pesticide residues will become more stringent and will lead to a much higher drop in exports in the future,” said a representation from the industry to the government.

“If the 2020 notification is implemented, it will lead to a situation where not even a single grain of Basmati rice produced will be compliant with norms,” an exporter said.

“Indian Basmati has been facing residue issues since 2012. The adhoc approaches to the residue issues in the past has put exports in jeopardy,” said S Chandrasekaran, a trade policy analyst. Suggesting that exporters should work with specific backward linkages system till individual farmer is the solution, Chandrasekaran said the government should release varieties after appropriate scrutiny in accordance to emerging SPS standards. He also said the draft FSSAI standards may be the driver to reach permanent solution to this problem.

Disease-resistant varieties

But, AK Singh, director of IARI and inventor of PB 1509, said: “It is not that the problem has come due to PB 1121 or PB 1509 (both of which are grown in 6 lakh hectare area, each). The earlier varieties were also not disease resistant. With time, when area under a particular variety grows, disease also appears, which is a natural phenomenon.

Singh said IARI has developed three improved varieties to take care of bacterial blight and blast diseases — PB 1509 to be replaced with PB 1847, PB 1401 with PB 1886 and PB 1121 with PB 1885. During the last kisan mela in March, IARI also distributed 20 quintal of these seeds to 2,000 farmers for multiplication (1 kg can produce 2 quintal seeds) in this kharif season, Singh said, and added that in 2-3 years, these would be able to meet some concerns, particularly about Tricyclazole.

“Currently, we are working on developing some varieties to take care of Brown planthopper, another common pest in paddy,” Singh said.