If Pakistan’s farming sector can boast of one success over the past two decades, it would be its maize (corn) crop, which has gained massive popularity with little to no governmental intervention. Between 2000 and 2020, national output has grown by 4.5 times, backed by better profits for growers.
Where staple crops such as cotton and wheat have lost acres, corn has gained some, but much of the gains in output have been powered by improved productivity. Consider that while long-term average yield of crops such as cotton have been on a secular decline (and, wheat’s has stagnated) since 2000s, national average yield for corn has multiplied over three times during the same period. But national averages masks corn’s still unexploited potential. Among major cereals and staple crops, corn is the only crop planted in both kharif (autumn) and rabi (spring) season, although more than two-thirds of the national output is produced during kharif. In fact, Pakistan’s spring crop is a quite recent innovation, which warrants a quick detour through its short history.
Until mid-eighties, over half of national corn output was sourced from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. At that time, corn was grown in the northern parts of the country (including Rawalpindi belt of Punjab) mainly as a cereal for (direct) human consumption. Since the crop lagged in popularity as the preferred cereal of subcontinent, it managed to avoid policy/regulatory focus, resulting in its poor yield.
Come nineties, and the increasing popularity of poultry as an affordable source of protein meant that the farmers needed a cheap carb source to feed an increasing number of broiler birds. Serious efforts were made by private sector seed companies to commercialize corn as feedstock. This was also the first time when corn crop made in-roads into Punjab as a competitor to other major kharif crops such as rice and cotton.
But private sector seed companies also marketed an innovative farming practice, quite common globally but not experienced by Pakistani growers till that time: corn crop grown twice a year. Spring corn was introduced and enjoyed substantial commercial success.
Then why has spring corn not become a talk of town and two-season cropping intensity has not spread to other competing crops? This becomes even more interesting when corn crop yields are compared across region and weathers (see illustrations). While KP’s kharif yield is stuck under 2 tons per hectares for several years, Punjab’s rabi (spring) corn has achieved seasonal average yield of up to 8 tons per hectares, at par with global corn producing giants such as Argentina and Brazil.
Consider also that despite corn’s success as a major spring season crop in Punjab, over half of the output is instead planted during kharif season, competing with other commercial crops such as cotton and rice for precious acres. Why is spring corn not planted more commonly?
Because of a ‘till death do us part’ relationship between wheat and Punjab’s farmers. Because wheat is an off-season (rabi/winter) crop that enjoys major governmental support in the form of support price policy, guaranteed returns, and procurement operations, most growers continue to prefer wheat crop. Consider that out of the 9 million hectares sown in the rabi season nationally, over 92 percent are devoted to wheat crop, with all others crops such as lentils, pulses, oilseeds, and fodder competing for the precious remainder seven hundred thousand hectares.
The recent price spiral in prices of poultry products across country during last two years have shown that Pakistan is on its way to face a corn crop price spiral in coming years. Increasing white meat consumption means that demand for corn (grown as feedstock/fodder) for poultry is fast increasing, as improvement in its yield has plateaued due to law of diminishing returns (spring yield is already at par with rest of the world using hybrid seeds).
If the last year’s wheat crisis brought any lessons home, it is that Pakistan’s fast-growing population with ever more mouths to feed means that the farming community will face trade-offs between crop choices more frequently. Even as regulatory interventions are made to protect acreage under one crop (such as wheat), it will only lead to shortfall of acres under other crops such as maize, alternating between two price spirals. If Pakistan is to resolve the structural challenge of food inflation, it needs to address the poor farming yield quagmire on war footing.