India maps DNA of basmati rice to protect it from West

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Indian scientists are mapping the DNA of one of the country's basic food products: basmati rice. Concerned that Western corporations may try to take out patents on the food, their aim is not to produce genetically modified rice but to protect one of India's most treasured natural products from a foreign takeover.

Basmati may be beloved of students because it is easy to cook, but to connoisseurs, its long grains and natural scent make it one of the world's most desired varieties of rice. It is one of the Indian agriculture sector's prime exports.

Already the country has fought off an attempt by an American company to copyright the name basmati for its own product, a crossing of American rice and Indian basmati. True basmati rice, by contrast, is a natural product still grown by highly traditional methods.

The project to prove that basmati rice is quintessentially Indian is a sign of how GM methods are transforming the agricultural industry. Today, traditional farmers are trying to fight off what is being called "gene piracy". Everybody knows basmati rice comes from India, but lawyers are warning that there is no way of proving it in a court of law. That is where scientists come in.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (Icar) is hoping to genetically "fingerprint" 72 different varieties of basmati rice that are grown in different regions of India.

KS Money, chairman of India's Agriculture and Allied Products Export Authority, told the Indian Express: "It's always better to have records of our biodiversity and germplasm so that if someone uses our variety and claims intellectual property rights, we should be able to contest it."

JL Karihaloo, director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Research, said: We develop a kind of barcode unique to the variety. In forensics, DNA fingerprinting is used to identify criminals. The same application has been developed for plants."

Countries have, in the past, fought off attempts by foreign companies to copyright the names of their traditional products. France has been successful in protecting the names of its cheeses and wine-growing regions. The Czech Republic has had a harder time fighting off the American Anheuser-Busch brewery's attempt to copyright Budweiser beer, named after the Czech town of Budweis.

But the Indian DNA mapping is an attempt to patent not the name but the produce itself.

The Icar hopes to complete mapping DNA of basmati rice within two years. It has already fingerprinted 42 varieties of chillies, 243 varieties of bananas, and 30 varieties of mangoes, including India's much sought after sweet Alphonso mangoes. It is planning to start work on spices.