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CHENNAI, India, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Corn yields in India, Asia's second-largest grower, could double over the next decade, a top industry official said, possibly compensating growing domestic animal feed demand and maintaining the country's position as a cheap supplier to Asian customers.
India's corn acreage is the fifth highest in the world at more than eight million hectares, but its yields are among the lowest -- ranging from 1 to 4.5 tonnes a hectare, compared with about an average 10 tonnes in the United States.
But even such low numbers are an improvement from the turn of the century when India was a net importer of corn. Use of high yield seeds has boosted output, helping meet the domestic demand and leaving 2-3 million tonnes currently for exports.
"There is tremendous room for improvement and given the focus on the crop, yields could go up 6-8 tonnes (a hectare) in the next 10 years," Hardeep Grewal, Asia Pacific head of corn marketing for Syngenta, the world's largest agrochemicals firm, told Reuters.
"It's possible because the technology is there and we have seen that the adoption rate in the primary corn growing areas is very high," he said on the sidelines of a conference on food security organised by Syngenta.
Corn is grown in most Indian states, particularly in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the south and Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the north. About half of India's corn area remains under traditional cultivation methods and produces only about one tonne per hectare.
Of the remaining area which uses higher-yielding seeds, the productivity from the winter-sown crop spread over only two million hectares is the highest at about 4.5 tonnes a hectare, and that from the summer-sown crop is at between 2.5 and 3 tonnes a hectare, Grewal said.
"So one fourth of the corn area in India is supplying one half of the total production ... (that) shows you that Indian small farmers are adopting technologies very quickly when they are in the market economy, when they have the ability to access good quality seeds, when they have the ability to sell their grains and they have the ability to get access to agronomic information," Grewal said.
But a combination of hurdles such as poor access to credit, to agronomical information and to markets has kept productivity low and prevented Indian farmers from taking advantage of growing global demand for corn, a key ingredient in both poultry and cattle feed.
"Farmers are planting hybrids but relatively low value hybrids. They will adopt higher value hybrids as they get access to finances -- it would be microcredit, it would be inputs and again the infrastructure has to be where they are able to sell their grain to local grain centres," Grewal said.
"But that will still take time because that will require heavy investments from the government or the private sector."
India's corn demand currently stands at about 15-16 million tonnes, pushed largely by animal feed sales as an expanding population of rich Indians consume more animal protein.
It takes about three kg of corn to produce one kg of chicken, which is eaten more widely in predominantly Hindu India than beef or pork.
According to the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), the country could consume 30 million tonnes of corn by 2020, more than 50 percent to be claimed by the poultry industry.
"As India looks into the next 15 years at its protein requirements, for animal protein, particularly for poultry and eggs, the demand for animal feed will go up, the demand for corn will go up," Grewal said.
"It's vital productivity is increased. I think where the government plays a key role is in the current hybrid areas where they are getting four tonnes (a hectare). Do we help those farmers to get eight tonnes? Absolutely yes. We've got the combination of solutions, we have the technologies," he said.
India's share of world corn trade of around 90 million tonnes is small, but the nation is a significant supplier to buyers such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia that seek small parcels for prompt shipment.
A recent ASSOCHAM report said boosting corn yields quickly would enable India to maintain its exports and even grow them, despite higher domestic demand which is rising about six percent a year.
And with growing competition among crops it may not be possible to grow corn in more areas of India, which makes it important to boost productivity, it said.
The country could sell more than three million tonnes of corn in 2010/11, a two-fold jump from a year ago, after a good monsoon last year, USDA data said.
"Clearly how India boosts its corn yields will determine whether it can become a bigger player in the market," Grewal said, adding Indian supplies had a price and freight advantage in the Asian region.
"The industry has good hybrids. What needs to be done is for the technology to reach the farmers. The potential is great." (Editing by Jo Winterbottom)