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Friday, Dec 22, 2006

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Maize in the food and fuel maze

Maize is one of the first crops for which GM varieties make up `a significant proportion of the total harvest'.

After wheat, our duty-free import list may soon have maize too. The Agriculture Minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, has said that the Government will `seriously consider' the idea `to meet the requirement of the poultry industry'.

More than 2,000 `maize' headlines pop up on Google News, at the time of writing. For instance, Budapest Business Journal speaks of Hungary's proposal that the EU (European Union) extend the maize intervention scheme, even as the EC (European Commission) suggests that abolishing public intervention purchases for maize in the 2007/2008 marketing year will benefit Central European produces, as, France informs. On the export-import front, "Zambia to ban maize export despite surplus," notes People's Daily Online. And, "Taiwan to import 5,00,000 tons of maize from China," reads a headline on Monsters and, UK.

Time to come to terms with maize. The word appears in Concise Oxford English Dictionary after Maithili (`a Bihari language') and maître d'hôtel (`the head waiter of a restaurant'), and means `a cereal plant originating in Central America and yielding large grains'. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary traces the etymology of maize to Spanish maíz, from Taino mahiz, and gives a cross-reference to `Indian corn', which in turn is explained as "a tall widely cultivated American cereal grass (Zea mays) bearing seeds on elongated ears."

See `corn', says and defines `maize' as `a light yellow to moderate orange yellow'. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines `corn' as also the grains or kernels of Zea mays, `used as food for humans and livestock or for the extraction of an edible oil or starch'. As slang, corn means `something considered trite, dated, melodramatic, or unduly sentimental'.

Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett (1848) on states: "The earliest dictionary in which I find the word, is Florio's Worlde of Wordes (1598); the article there is Maiz, a kind of grain or wheat whereof they make bread in India. Its native country is not fully determined." Maize or corn spread from the American continents to the rest of the world after European contact with the Americas in the late 15th century and early 16th century, postulates Wikipedia. "The English word `corn' originally referred to a granular particle, most commonly cereal grains. It is called mealies in southern Africa."

In Encarta, `maize' appears after Maitreya (`the Buddha who is expected to come to Earth to teach Buddhist law') and is traced `directly or via French maïs'. Maizena means `corn flour used in cooking as a thickener for sauces and soups' in South Africa. `Weather causes slump in maize season,' reports SABC News, South Africa. "About 500 maize farmers recently took to the Kampala streets, demonstrating over the low prices of maize," states in a December 19 story. "Maize is a widely grown and consumed cereal crop in Uganda. It covers about 46 per cent of all cereal-growing land, contributing about 16 per cent of the total cash and food crop contribution to Uganda's GDP (gross domestic product)."

A search for `maize in India' takes one to CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, Mexico. The abbreviation derives from the Spanish version of the institution's name, Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo. According to the UN's FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), maize and wheat account for about 40 per cent of the world's food and 25 per cent of calories consumed in developing countries, says the site.

Maize now ranks as the third most important food grain crop in India, write the authors of a 50-page paper titled Maize in India: Production Systems, Constraints, and Research Priorities, on "The maize area has slowly expanded over the past few years to about 6.2 million ha (3.4 per cent of the gross cropped area) in 1999/2000." Weeds, mainly Echinocloa and Cynodon dactylon, are the major constraints to maize production, followed by rats and termites, one learns. Distressingly, farmers in some parts of Mangochi face doom as an unusual number of rodent have been attacking their maize fields this year, rues Malawi's Daily Times.

Popcorn or popping corn is a type of maize that explodes from the kernel and puffs up when it is heated in oil or by dry heat, says "The first popcorn made by Native Americans, was flavoured with dried herbs and spices." Explosive stuff for GM (genetically modified) watchers is that maize is one of the first crops for which GM varieties make up `a significant proportion of the total harvest'.

Maize eater is a South American bird of the genus Pseudoleistes, allied to the troupials, says Maize is `annual cereal originating in Central America and introduced to Europe in the 16th century,' informs, of HYPP (hypermédia en protection des plantes). Maize has `a single, large-diameter stem supporting leaves in the axil of which are the female flowers which, after fertilisation, give the ears, and the male flowers are grouped in a terminal panicle called tassle.' Harvest occurs `when the ears have lost their green colour,' and the cobs have the golden yellow seeds. Maize has numerous markets, says the site and lists the following: Agricultural and nutrition industries (biscuits, pastries, breweries, distilleries, etc.), textile industry (to make glue), pharmaceutical products (as a sweetener). "More recently, in biodegradable plastics and biofuels. It may also serve as a base in human nutrition (polenta in Italy)."

Julian Bell writes in a December 15-dated article on that in the US, "almost 20 per cent of the maize crop is processed for bio-ethanol, resulting this season in a sharp fall in stocks and maize prices at a ten-year high." Plantations growing jatropha, sugar cane, maize, oil palm and other biofuel crops, have mushroomed in hundreds of projects in developing countries around the world, writes Newton Sibanda in an article titled Biofuels: Climate change cure?' on "Despite the global frenzy, biofuels proponent Jeff Schafer estimates that if high yield biofuel crops were grown on all the farmlands on earth, they would still only amount to 20 per cent of the world's demand for crude oil," concludes Sibanda.

`Corn Will Cost More,' predicts Godfrey Eneas in a December 18 article in The Bahama Journal. "Cereal prices, particularly for wheat and maize, have reached levels not seen for a decade, according to FAO's latest Food Outlook report," he begins. "Poor harvests in key producing countries and a fast-growing demand for biofuel production have driven up grain prices."

Food for thought, even as maize battles with competing demands, as a source for nutrition and fuel, and as homegrown versus imported.

D. Murali

More Stories on : Foodgrains | Coming to Terms | Bio-tech & Genetics

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