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July 7, 1998


The Rediff Business Interview/Robin Andrews

'We are flattered by the attention but don't wish to be flattened'

When a little known company based in Texas, United States, patented basmati rice, there was a hue and cry in India. People spoke of cultural piracy and swore that well- known Indian products were under threat from western multinationals. In an email interview with Amberish K Diwanji, RiceTec chief executive Robin Andrews defends his company and its actions. An excerpt:

May we know something about you, Mr Andrews, such as your background, how long you have been with RiceTec, etc?

I was born and educated in the UK and moved to the US in 1962. I have worked in agriculture for the past 20 years and rice research for the past 15 years. I've been president and CEO of RiceTec., Inc since it was formed as a separate company in 1990 and was president and CEO of the predecessor company, Farms of Texas Company. In addition, I was president of the Celanese Plastics and Specialities Company and deputy chairman of ICI Fibres in the UK.

May we know something about RiceTec Inc, such as how old is the company, what products it deals in (besides rice), the turnover and profits, number of employees, etc.

RiceTec was founded in 1987 as a division of Farms of Texas Company and became a separate company, RiceTec, Inc, in 1990. Our only products are rice seed and rice grain. RiceTec has annual sales of approximately $10 million and about 100 employees.

We would also like to know something about the kind of research RiceTec does, how many labs and researchers it has, the products it has discovered and patented, etc.

The research work conducted by RiceTec is devoted to:
(1) the breeding of rice seeds to reduce the cost and land requirements for rice farming, and
(2) the breeding of rice seeds for speciality rice products to improve the value of the rice crop and provide consumers with more choice.

What made you decide to patent your rice and name it basmati? How did the idea dawn?

Seed companies in the United States and many other countries (not India and Pakistan) always patent their new varieties. RiceTec follows this practice.

Intellectual property rights encourage investment in seed research by allowing companies to have exclusive control of the results of their work for a period of time. The idea did not dawn -- it is normal practice and we gave it no special thought.

Our new varieties are called basmati because they are of that type or class. I would refer you to the Indian literature on this matter.

There has been tremendous misunderstanding about our patent. The patent is actually for the breeding method RiceTec invented, not for the name or word 'basmati'. We spent more than 10 years developing the variety of rice through this breeding method and our patent protects our investment in the US.

Patenting, breeding or milling methods is a standard practice in this country. While India has no intellectual property laws, many countries do. It is probably the lack of such laws in India which causes such lack of understanding of what we have done here and why those actions pose no threat whatsoever to Indian farmers or breeders.

Did you suspect that your move would raise such a furore in India? Were you surprised?

We were very surprised by the furore because we still do not believe there is any reason for any legitimate concern. I think the only reason there is such a flap is because of misunderstandings of what RiceTec has done and the difference in the laws between the US and both India and Pakistan.

Given the well-known fact that basmati rice has been traditionally associated with India and Pakistan, how fair do you think it is to use the name basmati?

Just as 'durum' refers to a class of wheat, basmati refers to a class of rice. Basmati is a generic term used by breeders and traders for decades and consumers are familiar with its descriptive use on products such as American basmati, Indian basmati, Pakistan basmati, Uruguay basmati and Thai basmati.

RiceTec has been using the term basmati for 20 years for its product, Texmati, calling it an American basmati or a Texas basmati and there has never, ever been a question until now.

How do you view the rumpus in India from your end?

This entire flap is unnecessary. First, basmati has long been a generic term used throughout the world to describe a class of rice. Second, RiceTec has not patented the name or word basmati. Third, nothing RiceTec has done is in any way threatening to Indian or Pakistani farmers or traders. RiceTec produces less than one-half of one per cent of the world's basmati.

India has not yet passed a law on geographical appellation like France and Scotland have, which means Champagne can be only used for sparkling wine from Champagne district and Scotch for whisky from Scotland. Is this oversight reason enough to take advantage and use the word basmati?

Despite the tenor of the question, RiceTec has not taken unfair advantage of anyone.

Would you be willing to return the word basmati to India and use other words for your products? Incidentally, are not words like Texmati and Kasmati blurring the lines of fairness to the consumer?

On the first question, we have nothing to return because we don't own the term basmati at all. It is widely used by companies and breeders in many countries of the world to describe aromatic rice of various qualities. If we stopped using it, no one else would follow suit.

On the second question, our products have always been clearly labelled as American basmati or Texas basmati, thus removing any question of confusing the consumer into thinking the rice comes from India, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines or any where else. We are proud that we produce the rice in the United States and our customers like the consistency and quality of our rice.

Have you received notice from any authority in India, or the WTO, or from the US challenging RiceTec's use of the word basmati?

No! Despite many media stories that the Indian or Pakistani governments have challenged or are going to challenge RiceTec's patent in the US, there have been no action whatsoever to date.

Indians view the Europeans (and the British in particular) as having robbed India of its jewels, not the least being the Kohinoor diamond? Using the name basmati only fuels that feeling? Would you stop using basmati as a form of goodwill even if any case goes against India?

RiceTec has been marketing its branded Texmati product for 20 years as an American basmati or a Texas basmati. The products, packaging, trademarks and use of the term, basmati, were established in 1978, six years before I joined the company.

Our company subsequently invested substantial time and money to develop the improved new varieties of rice covered in our patent and to continue building the equity in our brands. I do not think we would gain any valuable goodwill by stopping the use of the basmati descriptor.

No one in India is going to be better off if we stop using the term so why would this create goodwill? We are a very small company competing in a large industry being attacked in the media, it appears, by a powerful trade organisation and political system. We are flattered by the attention but do not wish to be flattened.

How best do you think the matter should be resolved? I think the best way to resolve this issue is for the responsible parties in India and Pakistan to take the time to understand the facts and the long history of the use of the term basmati by the scientific and commercial world to describe this type of rice and a great many varieties within the type.

I think if they examine the evidence carefully they will see why this situation has arisen. (They will realise) RiceTec has done nothing wrong and that the name basmati has not been "stolen." We would be happy to have direct discussions with those involved in place of these conversations "through the media". I do not personally think it would help the Indian rice industry to have the RiceTec patent overturned, unlikely as that is, and to have our seed freely available to the entire US rice industry. I also believe that the legal costs involved in attempting to reverse history might best be spent otherwise.


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