Popcorn consumption may have boomed over the past decade, especially with the mushrooming of multiplex cinemas, malls and food courts across metros and Tier-II cities. Consumers are lining up to munch the puffed-up kernels, be it from the street vendor roasting these in a kadhaai and selling in paper bags for Rs 10-20 or at an eye-popping Rs 250-300 for a 100-gram bucket from multiplex chains.
But all this has changed little for the farmer growing popcorn varieties of maize. Far from being able to access consumers effectively shelling out Rs 2,500-3,000 per kg, he is being forced to sell at even below the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 13.25 per kg for regular maize declared by the government.
It isn’t that scientists haven’t bred good popcorn maize varieties — the outer hulls of whose grains are strong enough for the moisture in the kernel to turn into pressurised steam on heating, causing the starch and proteins inside to expand and pop out to form a crispy puff. The Pearl Popcorn variety developed by the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana (PAU), Amber Popcorn of Telangana State Agricultural University in Hyderabad, Jawahar Popcorn of the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya’s zonal research station at Chhindwara and Bajaura Popcorn of the Himachal Pradesh Agriculture University in Palampur have all been well received by farmers.
But the problem is yields, which at 20-25 quintal per hectare for popcorn maize, is half that of normal maize varieties. The buyers of this maize aren’t willing to pay a premium to the farmer, even though they are making a fortune by selling it to the final consumer at the multiplex. “Farmers need a minimum realisation of Rs 2,500-3,000 per quintal to make popcorn maize cultivation viable. Currently, they are not getting even the MSP of 1,325 per quintal, which itself is a joke. The government should announce a separate MSP for popcorn maize,” says J S Chawla, a senior maize breeder at PAU.
Also, unlike normal maize that has a large market as a feed grains, there is no such demand for popcorn maize. “Popcorn is not something we consume on a daily or even weekly basis. It is just a snack and not part of the staple Indian diet. The current production is more or less meeting the demand and unless the latter goes up significantly, we cannot expect farmers to grow more,” concedes O P Yadav, director of the Indian Institute of Maize Research in Delhi.
The same reason also accounts for research in popcorn maize not progressing much beyond development of the four major publicly-bred varieties. Research ultimately is demand-led.
“There have been more varieties developed in normal maize and other crops where consumption is much higher,” points out B S Dhillon, vice chancellor of PAU and a reputed maize scientist himself, under whom the Peal Popcorn variety was bred.
In Punjab, maize was promoted as an alternative to both rice and wheat, as part of the state government’s crop diversification initiative. Although traditionally a kharif crop, maize is also amenable to growing in the rabi and spring seasons. The results haven’t really been successful, with only 1.26 lakh hectares (lh) being sown to the crop in 2014-15, compared to 35.14 lh under wheat and 28.94 lh under rice.
The reasons are two-fold. The first is that maize, especially grown during kharif, cannot tolerate incessant rains, which is not the case with rice/paddy. Secondly, the latter has an assured market, including through governmental procurement, unlike maize – and even more so, popcorn maize.