Take physic, pomp

Argentina’s rust belt

If you’re a regular traveller through the pampas of Argentina, you might have noticed a landscape change in the last few years. The humble soybean is the hottest agro product out there right now, and views such as the photo above (it doesn’t really do justice to the huge tracts of land* we’re talking here, but it’s a start) are common.

Here’s a chart from the USDA that gives a couple of stats about the change. 2007 isn’t included here, but last year beat the 2006 record, with 48MT of soybean harvested. Soya is wildly profitable for large-scale farming techniques and many landowners are turning their backs on the traditional cattle/beef farming that goes back to Martin Fierro times to plant the bean.
Soy is now the biggest single contributor to Argentina state coffers. Last week, the tax on soybeans was raised to 44.1% of export revenues from 35%, a percentage that was raised from 27.5% last year. The tax on soymeal was pegged at 3% below the bean, but due to an ongoing protest now 5 days old, the government today decided to make that break 4%. The way things are, at today’s prices that means the argentine gov’t gets about U$515 per tonne of soystuff exported, and as 95% of the crop is exported, we’re talking big money here**.

It seems too good to be true, right? Right. Despite nearly all the soybeans in Argentina being “RoundupReady”, which means Monsanto sells you the genetically modified high yield bean that’s resistant to its own pesticide (what’s known in Argy as a “negocio redondo”), this year cases of “Asian soybean rust” have been reported. If you can’t be bothered to click on that last link, basically the nasty disease isn’t new to Argentina, but it is the first time that its shown itself early in the growing season and the expert says that the problem is growing. To give a bit of context, last year Brazil lost 4.5MT of production ‘cos of soybean rust (call it 4% of total production).

Not so bad, you might think. And sure, up to now correct use of fungicides has protected the precious crop. But pachamama has this tendency to get round our clever scientist bods with mutations and Darwin and stuff, and the monoculture crop nature of today’s Argentina that basically plants one single variety of one single bean in 50% of its cultivated area (and if you know the pampas, you’ll know we’re talking bigsky world) is just asking for trouble if you ask me.

But hey, don’t ask me….take a trip to Boston, Mass. some time. When you do, find a friendly-looking cop with an orange tinge to his hair and ask him why his great great grandfather moved to the USA.

* copyright, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all rights ignored

** my casio sez for 45MT harvested in FY08 and 95% of that exported, we can ballpark U$22Bn for Cristina and company. That’s about ArgP$2,300 for every man, woman and child in Argentina. Not shabby.

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