Maize is one of the most important crops in Pakistan, placed third among cereal crops, behind wheat and rice. However, despite its remarkable rise in recent years, maize is often relegated to a peripheral crop when it comes to agriculture policy discourse in the country. Historically, government programs have targeted wheat, cotton, rice and sugarcane through various support interventions. Considering that similar concessions have eluded the maize farmer, Pakistan’s progress towards self-sufficiency in corn is no small feat.

After languishing as a fringe crop for many years, the advent of hybrid corn seeds in Punjab during the mid-nineties proved to be a key driver towards an unprecedented trajectory of growth. High performing hybrids brought about appreciable rise in yields and attracted farmers to the crop, subsequently increasing the overall productivity in Punjab. From that point onwards newer and improved germplasm was introduced by seed companies along with significant investment in farmer education and agronomic research.

The crop turned a corner in the later part of 1990s and saw a steady increase in yields, attracting more and more farmers towards cultivating maize, especially across Punjab where over 95% of the maize cropping area has now adopted hybrid seeds. According to statistics published by Punjab Agriculture Department, in the Province alone the area under maize cultivation has almost doubled between 1995 and 2015, going from 0.83 million acres to over 1.6 million during the period. Similarly, average yield in Punjab was recorded at 14 maunds per acre in 1995, which now stands at a staggering 60 maunds per acre, showing fourfold increase over the past 20 years. In 1995 Pakistan produced a total of 1.3 million metric tons of corn from 2.2 million acres. Around 39% of the cultivated area was in Punjab, whereas Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province accounted for 59% of the total. Twenty years onwards, Punjab constitutes 59% of the overall maize cultivated area, with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa contributing 40% to national maize crop acreage, combining to provide production output in excess of 5 million metric tons.

While the impact of this phenomenal growth on the rural economy and farmer livelihood is self-evident, its implications with respect to downstream industry and national food security is more profound and far reaching. Poultry industry, in recent years, has emerged as the foremost source of cheap and accessible animal protein for the populace, owing much to the abundant availability of maize grain. This contribution is also evidenced in Food and Agriculture Organization’s nutrition indicators for Pakistan, showing 20% increase in daily per capita consumption of animal source proteins across the country since 2001. Based on Global Agriculture Information Network’s Pakistan Crop Report, poultry feed accounts for 65% of the total grain consumption, 15% is used in the wet milling industry, another 10% goes to livestock feed and silage making, while the remaining is consumed directly as flour. At present, supply is equaling demand, however, if the poultry industry continues to grow at the historical rate of 8-10% per annum, the demand-supply gap is expected to widen, subsequently risking an important component of our food security.

Going forward, sustainable growth of the maize crop will hinge on further increase in productivity and adoption of more innovative technologies that reduce costs. The impending commercialization of biotech corn seed may provide the impetus for future growth. Similarly, the introduction of newer and improved germplasm for niche markets such as silage industry, will also be crucial for future growth.

Given its current role in the poultry and livestock value chain, it is perhaps time to rethink maize crop’s status within the agriculture landscape. The evidence gleaned thus farmakes a strong case for the crop to be considered as strategic to our overall national food security.

 

n          The writer is a freelance journalist.

Going forward, sustainable growth of the maize crop will hinge on further increase in productivity and adoption of more innovative technologies that reduce costs. The impending commercialization of biotech corn seed may provide the impetus for future growth.