Maize, the queen of cereals, is becoming a vital source of raw material not only to increase ethanol production but also to feed growing poultry, animal feed, starch and other industries in India. As per estimates, India produced 34.6 million tonnes (mt) of maize in 2023-24 and has potential to double maize production to meet the supply-demand gap in the shortest possible time in a cost effective and sustainable manner.

Globally, maize is grown over 207 million hectares producing over 1,218 mt in 2022-23. The United States remains the largest producer of maize estimated at 387.7 mt, almost one-third of the global maize production. Moreover, other countries also harvest a bountiful of maize such as China (23 per cent), Brazil (11 per cent), European Union (5 per cent) and Argentina (4 per cent). However, India barely contributed 3 per cent at 34.6 mt from around 11 million hectares in 2022-23.

Notably, the US, Brazil and Argentina - the three largest producers of maize - dominate the global trade of 197 mt of maize exported primarily to China, the European Union, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Iran and Egypt. Moreover, about 116 mt, equivalent to 30 per cent of the US maize is processed annually to produce 56.85 billion litres of fuel ethanol, one of the largest markets for maize-based-ethanol, to meet almost 72 per cent of national biofuel blending requirement of 79.3 billion litres by volume in 2023. Most gasoline sold in the US has 10 per cent ethanol and is processed in the Midwest, the maize bowl of US.

Unleashing a second green revolution

India has recently embarked on a new policy paradigm to permit the blending of maize and grain-based ethanol under the National Policy on Biofuels (NPB) 2018. Moreover, the target for blending of ethanol petrol has increased multifold from just 1.53 per cent in 2013-14 to 10 per cent in 2021-22, 12.1 per cent blending in 2022-23 and expected to achieve the target of 20 per cent blending by 2024-25 and 30 per cent by 2029-30. At present, the grain-based distilleries are suppling ethanol to oil marketing companies (OMCs) estimated at 494 crore litres in 2022-23, primarily derived from sugar juice, cane molasses and rice, which needs to be increased to 1,016 crore litres by 2024-25.

NITI Aayog estimates that the current ethanol production capacity in India of 426 crore litres derived from molasses-based distilleries and 258 crore litres from grain-based distilleries is proposed to be expanded to 760 crore litres and 740 crore litres respectively to meet the expected demand of 1,016 crore litres of ethanol for EBP and 334 crore litres for other uses. This will require India to spare around 60 lakh tonnes of sugar and 165 lakh tonnes of grains per annum to meet E20 ethanol targets by 2024-25. Notably, the task force on sugarcane and sugar industry constituted under the Chairmanship of Professor Ramesh Chand, Member (Agriculture) of NITI Aayog clearly indicated that cereals, particularly maize and second generation (2G) biofuels with suitable technological innovations offer promise of a more environmentally benign alternative feedstock for production of ethanol.

Enhancing production

Maize is a crop of opportunity for future generations whereas continuously growing rice is lowering water table in the rice-growing areas of Indo-Gangetic plain resulting in distressed economic and ecological conditions. With the introduction of high yielding single cross, hybrid maize has become remunerative and the most suitable alternative to rice in irrigated conditions of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP in Kharif season. As a result, the opportunity to expand areas in irrigated belt, expanding maize in Rabi in Bihar, rice fallows with maize in Rabi in West Bangal, Odisha and North-Eastern States and cultivation of spring maize after potato, green peas and mustard harvest in Northern India. Diversification to maize cultivation in these areas would increase risk-free cropping intensity which would also fit very well in the scheme of diversification and intensification of maize based cropping system. Moreover, maize cultivation with long duration single cross hybrid in less than 1,200 mm rainfall areas with existing irrigation system through tubewell and canal can offer high returns and also save the government precious subsidies on power and water as maize growing can save upto 90 per cent power and 70 per cent water as compared to rice.

Technology adoption is key

Increasing per day productivity in maize growing States in different seasons is the solution by adopting need-based technology in India’s diverse agro-ecology to achieve the production target. India is uniquely positioned to grow a wide range of hybrid maturity from 75-150 days in different seasons. Per day productivity of maize in India varies between 40-80 kg in different seasons and regions. On the contrary, the US harvests 70-100 kg yield per day for a long maturity period of 130-160 days. In the past, the US has achieved record productivity with 100 per cent coverage of multiple insect and herbicide-tolerant biotech traits combined with high-yielding single cross hybrid and successfully leveraged the adoption of high input production technology to surpass the record yield of over 11 tonnes per hectare, calculated based on harvested crop but not the sown area.

Whereas India grows barely 50 per cent of its maize area under short to medium-duration single cross hybrid without biotech traits and harvests around 3.3-3.8 tonnes per hectare calculated based on crop sown area. Field studies and experiences indicate that India can easily double maize productivity and production by covering 100 per cent area under a single cross-hybrid with biotech traits resistant to invasive pest fall armyworm and adoption of high input production technology. Many neighbouring maize-growing countries in Asia and Africa including China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Nigeria and South Africa have adopted Bt maize to reduce losses caused by devastating fall armyworm (FAW) pest and increase maize competitiveness in the recent years.

A game changer

Maize can be a game changer for the ambitious ethanol blending program (EBP) to meet E20 blending targets, which requires 165 lakh tons of maize, equivalent to 48 per cent of the current national maize production of 346 lakh tonnes. Achieving such a target is plausible not by diverting this magnitude of maize for ethanol but by increasing maize production from 346 lakh tonnes to 420-430 lakh tonnes by 2024-25 and doubling by 640-650 lakh tonnes by 2029-30. The opportunities for India to increase maize production by an additional 165 lakh tonnes is achievable by ensuring the supply of high-yielding single cross hybrid with FAW-resistant biotech traits suitable to their climatic conditions and by offering minimum support price (MSP), assurances for procurement and concessions in transportation from the farm to the factory. Involving newly formed mega cooperatives in the maize value chain with MSP-based assured procurement and uninterrupted supply to ethanol distilleries can create another milk and sugarcane type cooperative revolution in India.

Mighty maize can realise the targets by increasing the use of maize as a multigrain cereal food crop, meeting double-digit consumption of maize for poultry and animal feed by producing ethanol-derived high protein distiller’s dried grains with soluble (DDGS) and meeting E20 ethanol requirement and therefore a major impetus towards achieving sustainable food, feed and fuel security.

India with its 110 lakh hectares under maize cultivation with high cropping intensity in varied seasonal and climatic conditions has been struggling with an average yield of 3.3-3.8 tonnes per hectare, almost half of the global average. It is time for India to launch a mega national action plan for doubling maize output to transform maize production by adopting a mission approach to diversification, intensification and adoption of biotechnological breakthroughs to realize the potential of increasing maize productivity and production in India

Choudhary is Founder-Directior of South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) and Dass is former Director of ICAR-Indian Institute of Maize Research (IIMR)