Pest attacks threaten to cut maize output, potentially disrupting government’s plan to boost cereal’s exports

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The cost of cultivation, too, increases by Rs 3,000-5,000 per acre in curbing the pests, he said.The cost of cultivation, too, increases by Rs 3,000-5,000 per acre in curbing the pests, he said.

The maize harvest is under threat this year with spodoptera frugiperda or Fall Armyworm (FAW), an invasive pest that first appeared in India in 2018, resurfacing with much greater ferocity.

This can potentially disrupt the government’s plan to boost exports of the coarse cereal, which has been viewed as an alternative to the water-guzzling paddy crop in the country’s northern region.

Maize production in the country had hit a record 30.24 million tonne in the last crop year through June, up 5% from a year before. However, with the pest attack, the crop prospects for 2021-22 seem uncertain. The cost of cultivation, too, will go up by 20-33% per acre to contain the pest.

Maize exports from India jumped from 2.73 million tonne in 2007-08 to 4.79 million tonne in 2012-13, before starting to drop. As 2.88 MT (worth $635 million or Rs 4,676 crore) of maize was shipped out in 2020-21, experts said the momentum seemed to have returned.

“In a short period of invasion, the FAW has become an endemic pest. It poses grave risks to the income of maize farmers and threatens to have devastating effects on production and diversification efforts. Every year, the pest has been appearing in one or other maize-growing areas,” Bhagirath Choudhary, founder director of South Asia Biotechnology Centre, told FE.

In the current kharif season, the FAW attacked 30% of the crop in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. This prompted the Centre and states to send experts to the field to contain the pest, which has become a major concern in key producing states like Karnataka, Telangana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Bihar in the last three years, Choudhary said.

When the FAW attacked maize in Karnataka three years ago, 40-60% of the crop was impacted, leading to a drop in yield. In 2019, over two million hectares of the country’s normal area of eight million hectares reported pest attacks. Crop over a larger area was infested by the pest last year, industry sources said.

Choudhary said the pest attacks call for a massive national programme to invest in research and development to curb the menace by exploring possibilities through biotechnology rather than focusing only on pesticides. The cost of cultivation, too, increases by Rs 3,000-5,000 per acre in curbing the pests, he said.

According to the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), the pan-India average cost of cultivation (A2+FL) is estimated at Rs 12,460/tonne while the yield is 1.2 tonne/acre. This means a farmer has to spend nearly Rs 15,000/acre to grow maize, whereas the realisation from market is about Rs 16,340 from one acre based on the average mandi price (Rs 1,362/ quintal during October-February 2020-21). But, in Tamil Nadu the yield is as high as 3.2 tonne/acre, which substantially increases the income.

Farmers have resorted to one-two pesticide sprays, depending on the severity as soon as they notice the pest on maize. “We are reaching out to farmers on use of seed treatment that controls pest infestation at the early stage, followed by two chemical sprays of Delegate (Spinetoram) — one after 15-18 days and the other after 25-30 days. Farmers are also informed about the methods of application to control the FAW effectively like spraying at whorls,” said a spokesperson of Corteva Agriscience.

Choudhary said since the pest is nocturnal, drones need to be used for effective spraying of pesticides, as farmers are not equipped to undertake this operation at night.

Meanwhile, the government has geared up its procurement drive for maize. Purchases surged to about 2 lakh tonne in 2020-21 from just 7,000 tonne in 2018-19. The CACP has asked for more incentives to motivate paddy farmers to shift to maize farming under the crop diversification programme.

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