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Maize has become the queen of cereals, courted by state governments, seed companies, farmers and the feedstock and starch industries as the crop of the future. The golden promise of hybrid maize with its high productivity and high returns is luring farmers across the country. But this triumphal march is raising concerns about food security: maize is after all an industrial crop and used little as food. Food sovereignty campaigners are raising concerns about the shrinking acreage of millets and other staple foods of small farmers on account of the generous subsidies given to maize. Latha Jishnu and Jyotika Sood meet maize scientists, agriculture mandarins, industry leaders, nutrition experts and farmers, specially those in the tribal belt, to understand the maize phenomenon which is changing the agricultural landscape. M Suchitra in Andhra Pradesh and Sumana Narayanan in Tamil Nadu track developments in these high productivity states
In the lush forested uplands of Koraput, Domu Matpadia, a Paraja tribeswoman, is coming face to face with modern farm technology. A representative of Charoen Pokphand, a Thai agribusiness multinational, is telling her how to grow its hybrid maize seeds that the state government has given her free along with a kit of fertiliser and pesticide. The seeds that she cradles in her palm with wonder are the key to a plan that Odisha has drawn up to get its farmers to give up their traditional rice cultivation in the uplands and take to hybrid maize instead to boost income.
Matpadia grows traditional varieties of white maize which, with rice, is one of the staple foods of her community. But the promise of windfall profits from yellow maize tickles her fancy. “We don’t eat this yellow stuff but I know it fetches a good price in the market. So I will give it a try.”
Odisha has used a special stratagem to kick off this scheme. It has deployed part of the Second Green Revolution funds announced by the Centre in 2010 to put together a public private partnership (PPP) to promote hybrid maize. In collaboration with Monsanto, Mahyco, Charoen Pokphand and four other companies, the state managed to cover 30,000 hectares (ha) with hybrid seeds last year by offering marginal and small cultivators, mostly tribal folk, seed kits that are adequate for an acre (0.4 ha). This year another 40,000 ha are coming under the wonder cereal.
Odisha is not the only state caught up in the maize mania. There is Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Madhya Pradesh, and a queue of others building up. Transfixed by the hardsell of agro-biotech companies, primarily Monsanto, on the potential of this wonder crop (see ‘The Monsanto way’,), a number of states have begun experiments in their tribal hinterland that could alter the agricultural landscape. The PPPs and negotiated deals come with cheery names full of promise—Project Sunshine, Golden Days, Rainbow, Golden Rays—and they follow a set pattern. Once the pilot projects establish proof of concept, the seed companies prepare to move in.
For Rajasthan, the inaugural venture with Monsanto in 2010 has been a resounding success, helped by a good monsoon. Operation Golden Rays has lived up to its name by bringing a glow to the faces of its tribal farmers. One such farmer, Moga Dalvaya of Jahrol village in Udaipur district is beaming from ear to ear. He has reaped a bumper harvest from the new maize seeds (Monsanto’s DKC 7074) given to him free by the government, a harvest that has exceeded his wildest expectations. From three bighas (roughly 10 bighas make a hectare), he got seven boris (bags of one quintal or 100 kg each). “I normally get just three boris from my white maize seed. Seven means I can feed my family till the next harvest.”
For Moga, the fertilizer and pesticide that he has been given along with the seed is a novel concept. He has never used these before. And so is the attention and advice he is getting from extension workers. He has never encountered such people before. These are young men who have been hired by Monsanto to ensure that its seeds are sown right and treated right. In Odisha, it is an army of well-paid non-governmental organisations that are assisting the agriculture extension officers to hand-hold first-time maize growers. Cost: Rs 1 crore to monitor 40,000 ha.
Maize cultivators have traditionally trusted nature to bring in the harvest for them. For the most part, they simply scatter the maize seeds, whether in the arid cracked plains of Rajasthan, the forest belt of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat or in the higher altitudes of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, and leave it to the rain gods to do the rest. Hybrid maize, however, comes with its own demands: line sowing, neat spacing and application of right amounts of fertiliser and pesticide at the appropriate times. Says Girija Bhusan Mohanty, deputy director of agriculture in Jeypore block of Koraput: “From time immemorial these people have grown rice and maize in their own way, so it is difficult for them to make the transition to modern methods without supervision.”
What explains this massive mobilisation, this attention to detail that is reminiscent in some ways of the Green Revolution? The answer is that another revolution is in the making, but one formulated and directed by the private sector. Maize is the fastest growing cereal in India today, but scientists believe its true potential is yet to be realised. Productivity is among the lowest in the world, although in terms of output it ranks sixth in the world (excluding the 27 EU countries). The increasing production has come on the back of expanding acreage and not on any gains in productivity. Since 2001, yield has remained in the two-tonnes-per-ha groove, give or take a few decimal points. By global standards this is dismal. Jordan has notched 20 tonnes/ha and Chile 11 tonnes, but these are insignificant players in terms of production. The world’s largest producer and exporter, the US, weighs in at 10 tonnes per ha and that remains the benchmark.
Ask the scientists why yields have not budged in the last decade, and they say the reason is poor seed replacement rate. “Just 20-30 per cent of the maize area is under hybrids. The rest of the farming is with open pollinated varieties (OPVs),” says R Sai Kumar, chief of Directorate of Maize Research (DMR), the country’s top maize research institution. OPVs are naturally occurring plants whose seeds can be reused unlike hybrids which need to be bought for every fresh planting. Interestingly, it is mostly in the non-traditional maize areas such as the southern states that hybrids have thrived.
This is where the first wave of the golden invasion washed up over a decade ago. “Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh knew nothing of maize,” points out Sai Kumar. “Yet it is these states, primarily Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which have the highest average productivity in the country.” Hybrids found ready acceptance here without any nudge from the administration, in all probability because the huge demand for the cereal allowed farmers to invest in high-cost seed and other inputs. The poultry industry and the livestock feed units are concentrated to a high degree in the south and about half the maize output disappears into the maws of chicken feed industry.
In many ways the story of maize has reflected the pushes and pulls of India’s fast developing economy: the astronomical growth of the poultry industry and in a lesser degree the starch industry, the notching up of global records in production while research in agriculture lagged woefully, the slow assimilation of tribal communities into the mainstream, changing dietary habits of a burgeoning middle class that is eating more eggs and chicken, and above all, a lack of direction in agricultural programmes that has allowed agro-biotech multinationals to influence policy.
The major push for the maize fields to keep expanding is the poultry industry. India is among the top five egg producers in the world (57 billion annually) and the ninth largest producer of poultry meat. With the assembly lines for broilers revving up ever more every year and turning out 42 million birds a week, the pressure from this industry, which contributes an estimated Rs 45,000 crore to the national income, is fuelling investment in maize cultivation.
Such pressures will accelerate in the wake of campaigns by the National Egg Coordination Committee to raise egg consumption of Indians from the current 53 per person annually to 180 by 2015.
The problem is that neither research nor incentives to improve the performance of maize have kept pace. In the Ninth Five Year Plan there was the Accelerated Maize Development Programme to transfer modern crop production technology to maize-growing states (26 in all) and later, ISOPOM (Integrated Scheme of Oilseeds, Pulses, Oilpalm and Maize). But with outlay of just Rs 36.36 crore for the entire Tenth Plan (2002-2007), it hardly made any impression. Allocations have risen slowly—it is Rs 65.6 crore for the current year—but the spread is thin and states complain that not much headway can be made. Now some states spend as much as Rs 39 crore on a single PPP and claim the diffusion is far more effective.
The most significant turn in maize development, though, came in 2006 when a noted crop developer with the Haryana Agriculture University (HAU) took over as the DMR head. Sain Dass made a drastic change at this institute under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research as soon as he took over. He stopped all research on OPVs—such as those still used in many tribal belts and can be reused unlike hybrids —and shifted the focus to single-minded research on single cross hybrids (SCHs) at DMR and its 30 affiliated research centres.
“There was no real research going on. I just gave it a new thrust,” says Dass who now heads the powerful industry body, the Indian Maize Development Association that brings together research scientists, maize growers and user industries to promote maize.
The problem with OPVs is that the yields are pretty low, around three tonnes per ha, whereas SCHs post an average five tonnes. “Can you imagine what our production would be if we can get all of India under hybrids?” demands Dass. Under his encouragement HAU has entered into agreements with a domestic company to produce the hybrid seeds developed by the research institute on payment of a nominal royalty. DMR is expected to follow suit soon.
Dass believes such seed production deals would enable the public sector to make a dent in the hybrids market. which, he says, is majority controlled by Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer. In the long run, though, he says, there is no option but to plump for genetically modified seeds.
Dass’s maize obsession is what industry, particularly the poultry sector, would like to encourage. With demand growing at an estimated eight-10 per cent annually, the chicken breeders find themselves pitted against starch makers and exports.
R Ramakrishnan, head of grain procurement at the Rs 3,200-crore Suguna Poultry Farms, complains that maize prices have been surging in Tamil Nadu because of exports (minor so far). The company is one of the largest poultries in India and needs 100,000 tonnes every month and says it has been hit by price spikes since December 2010.
On the other hand, Sakthi Feeds, a livestock feed manufacturer in Vennandur, Tamil Nadu, grumbles that maize has been hard to come by for two years because industrial starch manufacturers are using more maize and less of tapioca.
As for the starch industry, it feels that it is being forced to cough up more because of competition from the big hatcheries. With a corn grinding facility of 2,000 tonnes annually, the industry would have to import maize if the price spiral continues, according to the All India Starch Manufacturers’ Association. But this has in no way affected revenues of starch units because, association president Vishal Majithia says, there has been surging demand from their own customers.
The economics of this crop are such that governments pay little attention to its growing appetite for land—and the crops it replaces. In the past decade, maize has overrun 1.65 million ha that belonged to other crops, according to DMR. Among these are winter pulses, kharif cotton, rabi rice, specially in Andhra Pradesh, and spring wheat in the north. Maize, because of its versatility and resilience, is seen as the crop of the future when climate change will increase the abiotic stresses. To food sovereignty campaigners, however, maize is a serious concern (see ‘Killing millets’).
It has been swallowing up millet fields, and the acreage under hardier cereals such as jowar and bajra, and undermining the food security of the poor, warns P V Satheesh, national convenor of the Millet Network of India. Small and marginal farmers, “lured by the aggressive support of the state are likely to switch more and more to maize cultivation, abandoning their traditional millet-based biodiverse farming systems”, he worries. In June, out of the blue, Andhra announced an input subsidy of Rs 5,000 per acre for maize farmers although they had not sought it. Clearly, maize mania is only increasing.