I love so many Indian exports, I barely know where to start: bollywood films, bhangra music, glass bangles, gold earrings, multicolored silk, chana masala, chai tea and mango lassi to name a few. Among these exotic indulgences, my favorite is Indian food. Basmati rice is perfectly sticky and light, the sauce on chicken tikka masala is completely delicious. But the true story behind these cultural and artisanal exports is rather dark and complicated.
India exports many agricultural commodities, but none more than rice. In the 18th century, India was home to many types of Basmati rice- the long-grained, aromatic and light rice which is served in Indian restaurants the world over. During colonization, it was discovered that British people especially enjoyed Basmati-370, a specific type of Basmati rice. Farmers began growing only Basmati-370, and as India began to export much of its rice production, Basmati-370 gradually became one of only a few types of Basmati rice grown in India. The original biodiversity of India’s rice population was gone.
The international commodities market became flooded with Basmati rice. The commodity eventually became devalued, and India’s farmers suffered. New, genetically-modified strains were introduced, and several false types of “Basmati” rice entered the market.
In 1997, an American company called RiceTec won the patent on “Basmati rice lines and grains.” The company was accused of biopiracy and relations between India and the United States were abruptly tense. Eventually, the company lost most of its patent and farmers across India rejoiced. Basmati rice is more than just an agricultural commodity, though, it is a cultural export. Americans, like me, love to escape the unhealthy normalcy of our own national cuisine and briefly experience the exotic and alluring flavors of Indian food. For the time that we sit in the restaurant, we are indulging in a culinary and cultural experience. The loss of rice biodiversity in India is, therefore, akin to a loss of cultural history.
Another famous Indian agricultural commodity is the Indian mango. Until the Bush administration legalized the importation of Indian mangoes, Americans could only imagine how delicious and juicy they must taste. Now these mangoes are actually available in specialty and Indian grocery stores across the country. According to a recent story on National Public Radio, there are over 1500 varieties of Indian mango; some are renowned for their flavor, others for their texture. The mangoes are very expensive, but well worth it. Mexican and Guatemalan mangoes, by comparison, are small and tough. There is a catch, of course.
Of the 1500 wildly delicious types of Indian mango, only a few varieties are legally available in the United States. Sound familiar?
When an economically struggling country realizes that one specific type of agricultural commodity is popular among the world’s primary importers, biodiversity is often sacrificed for GDP growth. The Indian mango could become the Basmati rice of this generation of Indian agriculture. Is having an Indian mango readily available in your corner store worth the fact that they may eventually symbolize a loss of cultural and biological preservation? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.
If you’d like to try a famous Indian mango, you can probably locate them at your local Indian grocery store. Another option is to buy an Alphonso mango sapling for your yard. The Alphonso mango is the “King of Indian Mangoes.” These saplings are now available for sale right here in the United States, at a limit of one per family. If you want to try one of the other 1,497 types of Indian mango, you’ll just have to go to India.