Incredible as it may sound, the fact is that maize has beaten most other food crops, including wheat and rice, in terms of growth in production and productivity, especially in recent years. Much of this growth is technology-driven although expansion in crop area and better crop management have also contributed to it. Around 65 per cent of the area under maize is now used to cultivate hybrids, including various types of speciality produce such as sweetcorn, popcorn, baby corn and protein-upgraded corn called quality protein maize (QPM). Growers get higher returns for these types of corn. Improvements in the economics of maize cultivation seem imminent in coming years, thanks to present research strategies to enhance the quality of its protein, raise its beta-carotene (vitamin A) content and impart greater inbuilt resistance to it against diseases and weather-induced stresses such as drought.
The average maize productivity is estimated to have risen by 98 per cent between 1986 and 2014. This is almost double the increase of about 50 per cent in the average yields of wheat and rice during the same period. Besides, maize farming has spread in recent years to new areas in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The success in breeding good-quality, high-yielding and disease-tolerant hybrids with better adaptability is believed to have played a significant role in the steady expansion of corn farming. Attempts made in the 1950s to introduce US-bred corn hybrids in India did not succeed as they could not adapt to local conditions. This, in a way, was a blessing in disguise as it spurred indigenous research and led to the development of a large number of good hybrids suited to Indian conditions. The latest breakthrough in this field is the evolution of single-cross hybrids that are becoming popular among farmers. Evolved by crossing two distinctly different parent lines with desirable traits, these hybrids are highly productive. Their seeds are also relatively economical and easier to produce.
Maize has traditionally been grown as a rain-fed crop in the kharif season. But attempts to grow it in the rabi and spring seasons have also proved successful in several areas, notably West Bengal, Bihar and the north-eastern states. "With good agronomic practices, the yield of rabi maize can be double that of kharif maize and can even be as high as 12 to 12.5 tonnes a hectare", according to New Delhi-based Indian Institute of Maize Research Director O P Yadav. In tracts where winters ends early, ruling out wheat cultivation, or where rabi rice suffers due to water scarcity, maize is emerging as a potential alternative. Many farmers in West Bengal have begun to prefer maize to rice, potato and mustard in the rabi season, and to jute in the kharif season. Similarly, maize is replacing cotton and rice in some parts of Karnataka, and sorghum and cotton in Maharashtra, Yadav points out.
Maize, being a versatile grain, has found several commercial uses now. Consequently, only around 23 per cent of its output is consumed as food; the rest is used as feed for poultry, livestock and fish, or for producing starch and brewery products. The poultry industry alone consumes more than 50 per cent of the maize production. This content may rise further with the availability of maize hybrids that have higher content of lysine and methionine - the two key proteins needed for poultry birds.
Indian maize has managed to get a firm foothold in the export market as well. Between 3.5 and 5 million tonnes of maize have been shipped out annually since 2010, mostly to South-east Asian countries. The availability of speciality corns, notably sweetcorn and baby corn, has opened up European markets for Indian maize. Marketing channels are coming up to dispatch speciality corns to export destinations immediately after harvest to retain their freshness. For example, baby corn grown around Ludhiana in Punjab is reaching Europe within hours of its harvest. With further expansion of such facilities, production and export of special types of maize are bound to swell in the near future.