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Maize crop needs more care

September 10, 2012


MAIZE output has been on the rise for some years thanks to growing use of better crop management techniques as well as a slight increase in the area under cultivation. But there is a need to develop its value-added products both for domestic and export markets.

Maize production crossed 4.2 million tonnes mark in the last cropping year up 15 per cent from a year earlier and per-hectare yield reached near four tonnes, up from 3.8 tonnes, according to the Economic Survey of Pakistan. The year 2011-12 came as the second important milestone in the journey for higher yield, the first being the year of 2005-06 when the crop output had first crossed three million tonnes mark.

Emboldened by a consistent growth in production, Pakistan has also been exporting some quantity of maize grains or corn. But since the country has been exporting just corn and not value-added maize or corn products the foreign exchange earnings have remained limited. And even the volumes of grains exports have never been large enough to be noticed as a potential export dollar earner.

In most parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, people use maize flour for making breads or for mixing it with wheat flour or gram flour for the same purpose. Thousands of people also churn out popular salted pop-corn everyday on small heaters fitted with their push carts and sell it at shopping plazas or at parks or on the streets. Food companies manufacture corn flakes in small and large packs that are retailed out across the country. They also produce packaged corn flour to be used as a thickening agent in cooking of a large variety of food dishes.

But very little amount of the total maize production is used in producing corn oil to save the precious foreign exchange being spent on imports of edible oils. The bulk of about three million tones of maize produced every year is consumed in three main categories i.e. storage of the grains as new seeds, usage of ground maize as flour both at household and at companies’ levels and consumption in growing poultry feed industry. The decades’ old practice of using maize stalks even before flowering of the plants as animals’ fodder also reduces availability for human consumption and for industrial use.

Local solvent extraction industry does obtain a small quantity of corn oil while extracting starch from maize but lack of latest solvent extraction technologies lead to lower than the potential amount of corn oil. To top it all the per-acre yield of maize crop has shown but little growth over the years and is several times lesser than the per acre production in the US and other maize producing countries.

What remains unexploited so far are such prospects as launching of maize-cum wheat flour as an acceptable version of flour for bread making and developing commercially viable packaging of boiled corn for local and foreign markets, preparation of sweets with the use of maize flour and milk—or development of sweetened pop-corn balls as an exportable confectionary items.

“We can do all of this and even more if the government comes up a plan to exploit full potential of maize,” says a Karachi-based wheat flour miller who also exports to the Middle East such value-added products as vermicelli and Khajla and Pheni, two popular food delights of Ramazan.

Commodity traders say Pakistan exported between June and August this year about 50,000 tonnes of corn largely to Indonesia adding that exports of another 50,000 tonnes is in the pipeline.

Besides, Tajikistan also wants to import at least 5,000 tonnes of Pakistani maize as part of a deal envisaging purchase of sugar, wheat, rice, cottonseed oil and fertilizer. In mid-August a high level delegation of Tajik officials had held extensive talks with officials of Pakistan’s Ministry of Commerce in this regard and Economic Coordination Committee of the cabinet had partly given a go-ahead to the proposed deal afterwards.

Farmers say the current spell of monsoon rains is good for Maize crop as the amount of rainfall in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the heartland of maize production, has been such that it would boost per acre yield of the crop. “Studies show that light rains make no difference to Maize and very heavy rains rather decrease the yield. But medium to heavy rains in Potohar region like we’re experiencing this year is good for the crop as it makes Maize grains heavier and healthier and boost per acre yield,” a progressive farmer from Rawalpindi told Dawn over telephone.

Rain-fed cultivation of maize accounts for about one third of total output. There is a need to enhance per acre yield of the crop that depends on irrigation. One way of doing this could be to introduce genetically modified or GM corn in Pakistan. Two multinational companies have come up with plans to do this and their plans are awaiting approval from the Punjab and KP governments, according to an official of the Ministry of Food Security and Research.

Maize is planted on an estimated area of one million hectares with an annual production of about three million tonnes (last year the production was 3.5 million tonnes. The per hectare yield is above 3.5 tonnes which SUPARCO scientists believe can be doubled within years through better pre-planting management and by employing modern technology to reduce post-harvest losses.

Our farmers normally grow two Maize crops in a year – one in spring and the other in autumn. After the introduction of hybrid maize during the 1990s, they have also gradually shifted to hybrid maize and are getting better per acre yields.

Like in other crops, insect pests and weeds cause substantial losses to corn crop, including hybrid varieties. Maize stem borers and American bollworms are key crop destroyer. Agriculture departments of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have lately initiated moves to minimise the harm caused by these pests. Some agricultural scientists believe introduction of GM can help growers get rid of these pests and thereby cut their input costs which at present remains high because they need to use lots of pesticides.—Mohiuddin Aazim