Argentine grains export bottlenecks start to clear, pandemic uncertainty persists
Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath
The pandemic has hit at a terrible time for Argentine farmers, who just started the Southern Hemisphere fall harvest of soy and corn, the country’s two main cash crops.
Nearly 4,000 trucks carried crops to up-river ports on Friday, according to data from the AgroEntrega consultancy, marking a huge improvement over late last month when the pandemic slowed ground transportation to a trickle.
Only 1,500 trucks arrived at ports on the Parana River, Argentina’s grains superhighway, at a low point last month. More than 6,000 entered the same ports daily a year earlier.
A slowdown in commodities shipments from Argentina, the world’s No. 3 soybean and corn exporter and its top supplier of soymeal livestock feed, threatens to distort global trade flows as buyers look to rival grains exporting powerhouses Brazil and the United States to fill the supply gaps.
President Alberto Fernandez has exempted export-related work from a decree ordering Argentines to stay home until the middle of the month. But authorities in some port towns have pushed back against the exemption, arguing that freight trucks, their drivers and cargoes could spread the coronavirus pandemic.
The Parana port town of Arroyo Seco, in Santa Fe province, temporarily doubled the fee charged to truckers who haul grains through its jurisdiction. The move drew the ire of the CIARA-CEC exporting and soy-crushing companies chamber, which includes global behemoths like Bunge, Glencore and Louis Dreyfus.
“We consider this measure absolutely unjustified,” said CIARA-CEC chief Gustavo Idigoras. Arroyo Seco authorities later reversed the measure as the national government exerted pressure on municipalities to abide by norms aimed at protecting grains exports as the backbone of Latin America’s No. 3 economy.
Idigoras said other towns that had taken similar unilateral measures were gradually rolling them back.
Argentine has 1,265 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 37 fatalities so far, according to government data.
“The industry is getting a little more used to the situation. The flow of raw materials to the ports is enough to fill our crushing and exporting needs,” said a Buenos Aires-based executive at a top international grains exporting company.
“Municipal governments, port workers’ and truck drivers’ unions could complicate the situation at any moment,” said the executive, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation. “The minute that a driver or one of our employees catches a confirmed case of the virus, all bets are off.”
Not only would the infected person be quarantined but all employees, drivers and farmers who had contact with the patient.
Argentine grains inspectors and port workers have threatened to strike unless a temporary suspension of exports is called.
But the government, keenly aware that food is the country’s top source of export dollars as it struggles to avoid defaulting on tens of billions of dollars in dollar-denominated sovereign debt, has ordered the workers to stay on the job for now.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath; Editing by Leslie Adler and Tom Brown)