Here Comes the Sun

Smiling woman farmer in front of field

INDIA: Hybrid maize has raised farmers’ returns and reduced their risks. © CIMMYT/M. DeFreese

How did once-struggling Bihar achieve a boom in maize production?

Largely bypassed by the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the state of Bihar in eastern India once languished beside neighboring states whose economies flourished with bumper crops of wheat and rice. Times have changed. Currently India’s third-largest producer of maize, Bihar now accounts for about 10 percent of national production. What made this astonishing about-face possible?

Three decades ago, agriculture in Bihar was composed mostly of tiny farms vulnerable to seasonal floods and droughts. A dearth of institutions and infrastructure, such as electricity and roads, coupled with underdeveloped markets that kept crop prices low, posed obstacles to growth. Although agriculture employs more than three-quarters of Bihar’s residents, many lacked access to credit and productivity-enhancing technologies such as fertilizers and irrigation.

A Perfect Fit

It turned out that hybrid maize, which requires less water than wheat or rice, was a perfect fit for Bihar’s growing conditions. IFPRI Research Analyst Gaurav Tripathi, who with other IFPRI researchers conducted a recent study on maize in Bihar, credits, among other things, the residual moisture in the soil after the rainy season for reducing the irrigation needs for winter/spring crops. “Bihar,” he says, “is blessed with fertile soil, bright sunlight, and water for irrigation.”

The adoption of hybrid maize was the result of a shift in government seed policy in 1989 that allowed the private sector to develop, produce, and distribute seeds. “Multinational corporations have a higher capacity for research and development, production, and distribution in large quantities. They created capacity for large-scale production of hybrid seeds, which ultimately facilitated hybrid adoption in Bihar,” says Tripathi.

Hybrid maize, bred to be more robust and produce higher yields, has been widely adopted throughout the state. These hybrid seeds extend harvests far beyond the rainy season and allow the state to meet growing commercial and feed demand. Up to 60 percent of Bihar’s maize is sold for export. Rising income levels have sparked brisk growth in demand for feed in the dairy and poultry sectors, particularly in emerging economies, Tripathi explained. One big potential market is China, where imports are rising because demand for maize is outpacing production. “Bihar has the capacity to tap the Chinese market and become a global player in maize exports,” says Tripathi.

Superior Seeds

Bihar’s rise as a potential world player in the maize export market was made possible by a public-private partnership. More than 90 percent of Bihar’s hybrid seeds come from the private sector. While this partnership has allowed for technology transfer, ballooning agricultural output, a growing export market, additional growing seasons, and more resilient maize varieties, it has not been without controversy. Some critics argue that private sector seeds tend to be more costly than those developed by the public sector. But, in Tripathi’s view, private-sector involvement was essential to Bihar’s successes: “The costs of hybrid seeds are higher, but returns are higher and risks even less because hybrids are better adapted to biotic stresses, such as diseases, and abiotic stresses, such as moisture,” he said. The public-private aspect of the partnership is important, he adds, because it helps contain costs while maintaining seed quality.

Says Tripathi: “It actually has played a key role in the maize success story.”

In This Issue

Building Bigger Dreams

Can we improve people’s well-being by raising their aspirations?

Into the Spotlight

The grain teff has been consumed as a staple in Ethiopia for centuries but is little known outside the country. Now, researchers are training their attention on this understudied crop.

Untangling the Asian Enigma

Although South Asia has the highest concentration of undernutrition in the world, in the past two decades Bangladesh and Nepal have both achieved striking improvements in the nutrition of their citizens. How did they do it?

Does Money Talk?

FEATURE: Millions of poor people around the world are enrolled in safety net programs that hand out cash or food. What’s the best way to design these transfer programs?