World production of white maize is estimated to amount to about 65 to 70 million tons, relatively small compared to the annual output of around 500 million tons of yellow maize. However, white maize is almost exclusively grown for human consumption and is of paramount significance to nutrition and food security in a number of developing countries, especially in Africa. The volume of white maize traded internationally, estimated on average at 1.5-2.0 million tons per year, is dwarfed by shipments of yellow maize, which averaged some 60 million tons in recent years, mainly destined for use as animal feed. Market prices are usually slightly higher for white maize compared to the yellow type, although price margins can vary substantially depending on the overall supply and demand situation.
The primary policy objective for almost all white maize producing countries is to satisfy national requirements from domestic production. Exports in most cases are a result of excess production in years of favourable weather and of domestic stocks exceeding levels deemed necessary for food security purposes. In order to maintain a high degree of self-sufficiency, many potential exporting countries applied policies aimed at keeping minimum producer prices relatively high, which compromised their competitive position on the international market. In addition, white maize from southern and eastern Africa, the principal producing and consuming areas, face long distances between major production areas and ocean ports which contribute to high transport costs in many cases. As a result, when surpluses did occur, they could only be exported in years of high prices without incurring losses. This situation has resulted in several countries being competitive only in swap arrangements or triangular transactions for deliveries to neighbouring countries.
Recent efforts to deregulate national cereal sectors and to enhance market liberalization may have significant effects on the future supply and demand situation for white maize. White maize production in developing countries is expected to grow at a rate of 3.3 percent per annum between 1987-89 and 2000, but these rates of growth depend upon continued expansion of production in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries in the region where area growth is no longer a major component of expanding production, it is unclear if yield increases will be forthcoming to sustain these relatively high predicted growth rates in production.
The international market, being primarily supplied by southern Africa and the United States, is expected to continue to be volatile in the future. Supplies will depend on the export availabilities of a few producers and most countries will continue to import only in years of inadequate domestic supplies occasioned by crop shortfalls.
In maize research for developing countries, improvement of white-grained varieties and hybrids has been greater than in developed countries, where nearly all plant breeding research has focused on yellow maize. Nonetheless, in many countries where white maize is important, adoption of improved material has been slow and limited. One of the major constraints is the development of seed systems that adequately serve small farmers. Crop management research that solves the problems of soil fertility and unpredictable rainfall will also be crucial to continued growth in white maize production. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, policy changes as well as institutional and technical advances are required if white maize is to continue to meet the food needs of a rapidly growing population.