Aurora Magazine

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The Ascendancy of Corn

Fatima S. Attarwala looks at reasons why corn has become a success story.
Published 06 May, 2024 12:40pm

Most school day memories have echoes of corn in them in some shape or form. In a van shared with friends or with mom in the back of the car, kids often munch on corn of some variety – as makai (kernels cooked in ashes), bhutta (corn on the cob cooked over charcoal), steamed and sprinkled with cheese or the evergreen popcorn. Therein lies corn’s superpower – its diversity of use – and its attraction both on the agricultural as well as on the corporate front.

Also known as maize, corn’s success story has, to a large extent, been buried under the media attention that the politics of sugar and wheat usually garner. Yet, maize yields have tripled over the last two decades and according to a report by the Pakistan Business Council (PBC), production has surged over six times – going from 1.6 million tons to 10.6 million tons – a growth that stems from private sector investment, particularly in the form of the import of hybrid seeds and significantly by the absence of government intervention.

For context, about two-thirds of Pakistan’s total corn production of approximately 10 million tons is used for poultry feed, and the remaining is for livestock fodder and other commercial purposes as well as human consumption. While demand is mainly driven by the poultry feed and the dairy sector, corn has myriad applications for consumer goods as well as intermediate goods in the manufacturing sector. In fact, every part of the corn kernel finds a use; the oil is extracted from the germ, starch goes to industry for various products, protein is dried for poultry feed, and fibre is dried for cattle feed.

According to the PBC’s State of Agriculture 2023 Report, Pakistan has nearly two million chickens (they have quadrupled over the last 15 years), and the rise in poultry is correlated to the increase in the availability of quality feed. Feed is one of the main components of raising chickens and 45% of it consists of maize. Since the adoption of hybrid maize seeds in 2001, yields have increased from 18 maunds per acre to about 60 maunds, making hybrid maize one of the main reasons why Pakistan has grown as a poultry producer.

Pakistan also has the seventh largest livestock population in the world – and where there are cattle, there will be high demand for fodder; corn silage is also a popular cattle feed used in dairy farms along with some beef operations. Some call it a ‘superfood’ for farm animals because of its high protein content. In Pakistan, corn silage is of a relatively better quality because of suitable weather conditions, allowing for exports as well.

While poultry and livestock consume the lion’s share of maize production, corn derivatives have a multitude of uses for a variety of industries. For example, Rafhan Maize, an affiliate of Ingredion Inc., is one of the biggest corn refiners in the world. The company processes hundreds of thousands of tons of maize each year to produce food and industrial products. Derivatives such as cornstarch are used in the manufacturing of food items such as custard, while refining processes create flour and oil. Cornstarch is used in a range of industries and there is a growing domestic market for corn derivatives in textiles, paper, corrugated cardboard, food, pharma and detergents. For example, in textiles, starch is used as a binding and strengthening agent and is a prerequisite for weaving as it ensures that the threads do not break. On a more microscopic level, waste from the maize industry can create microbes, plants and fungi. These produce molecules with properties that go into the manufacture of household cleaning products, such as dishwashing soap and laundry detergent powder, by brands such as Unilever.

Corn’s success in Pakistan is a testament to what the private sector can achieve without government interference and with the availability of good-quality seeds.

Fatima S. Attarwala heads Dawn’s Business & Finance desk.