On its face, the news from Argentina is all bad. On 22 May, the country missed a deadline to pay $503 million in interest on bonds issued under New York law, marking the ninth default in its history and the third time this century. In current negotiations to resolve the impasse, there is some distance between the government in Buenos Aires and its debtholders. This will be the third consecutive year of recession. Inflation, despite running far below the 2019 rate, is still hovering around 27 percent annualized through April. The money base has grown 14 percent since the country went into lockdown on 3 March while the country’s dollar reserves have fallen to a four-year low of $42.6 billion despite strict currency controls. The gap between the official currency exchange rate and the blue dollar yawned to a gap of 67 percent. Furthermore, Argentina’s soy farmers are stockpiling soy as a hedge on what they view as an overvalued currency like they did in 2019. Through 13 May, with most of the soy harvested, farmers had sold and priced 12.7 million metric tons of beans, marking just a quarter of the crop but a 6-percentage point increase from this time last year.[i]
The End Of Quarantine
President Alberto Fernández, who has earned widespread applause for his aggressive actions to protect citizens from the global pandemic, will end the quarantine on Sunday, 7 June. Elected officials of urban centers are petitioning the federal government to allow more businesses to open to get the economy moving again. The federal capital and province of Buenos Aires, however, will retain strict public health measures as these jurisdictions continue to deal with infection rates higher than the rest of the country. This stress is cast against World Health Organization’s 22 May designation of South America as a new epicenter of the novel coronavirus. Brazil, with which Argentina shares a border of more than 750 miles, has been the hardest hit.[ii]
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Argentina is also suffering from an acute weather event brought on by long-term trends from climate change. The Paraná river, measured at Rosario, is now at a fifty-year low of 0.4 meters. Rosario is home to some to the largest soy crushing facilities in the world that has transformed Argentina into the world’s largest exporter of soybean meal and oil. The depth of the river affects transport of soybeans from producers in the northern Argentina, but more importantly from its neighbor Paraguay.[iii]
Barges sailing down now must carry less cargo and travel more slowly to navigate safely. Large-scale Panamex ships are carrying as much as 20 percent less than its typical 50,000 to 55,000 tons. Thus, more ships are needed, and more time is required. This is increasing the transaction costs to each element in the supply chain and hitting at the margins of the soy crushing sector. Exporters, commodity traders, and meteorologists alike do not see this situation abating until the rainy season begins in September.[iv]
The Reliance On Soy
On top of all this is the reliance on soy to generate foreign exchange.
Soy production fell 9 percent over the course of Mauricio Macri’s regime, from 58.8 million metric tons (2015/2016 season) to 53.5 million metric tons (2019/2020 season). Despite this decline, Argentina remains a large-scale exporter of beans, soy meal, and soy oil. In desperate need of foreign exchange, the Fernández administration increased the export duty to 33 percent earlier this year.[v]
Growing soybeans, however, has come at the price of using 500 million liters (132 million gallons) of pesticides annually. The result has been a reduction of between 30 and 50 percent in organic matter in the soil of soy farms in contrast to lands not yet cultivating it. Soybean farmer Amadeo Riva declared “The soil is an addict. You have to take the drug away from it little by little… I spent thousands of pesos on pesticides and the performance was bad. Then I set out to go back to old practices and little by little things started to improve.”[vi]
The economic historian Pablo Gerchunoff argued recently in Le Monde Diplomatique that once Argentina clears the twin hurdles of pandemic and sovereign debt negotiations, the government, business, and civil society will need to devise a plan of economic growth that can balance the desires of social mobility with the demands of social justice.[vii] This task is daunting. Yet, this is a once-in-a-generation moment.
For Gerchunoff, the path forward is growth through exports. As the most natural capital dependent member of the G20, Argentina will rely on its agro-industrial sector.
Necessary Investments Towards Agroecology
To do so, the Fernández administration needs to make the necessary investments and decisions towards agroecology by crafting policies and incentives to move producers away from the addiction of pesticides and to sustainable forms of agriculture.
As defined by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agroecology is an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems. It seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system. What makes agroecology different is that the emphasis lay with bottom-up and territorial processes that encourage the combination of science with local knowledge. It is designed to empower local communities while transforming food and agricultural systems with sustainable, long-term solutions.[viii]
The support and interest are there. Last July, the Argentine Senate declared its preoccupation with the global climate and ecological emergency, making it the first Latin American government and only the fourth in the world to do so. In January, the provincial government of La Pampa, a major soy production zone, prohibited the use of pesticides because of popular pressure, using an environmental law passed by the Macri administration regarding the safe disposal of agrochemical containers (Law 27.279/2016).[ix]
Small producers are also voluntarily switching to sustainable methods and farming communities around the country are forming collectives geared toward agroecological methods. Argentina’s National Agricultural Technology Institute branch office in General Villegas, Buenos Aires province, located in the heart of soy country, organized an online question-and-answer clinic via its Instagram account to discuss crop management. The non-profit Mayma Bio began in early May a series of 12 virtual seminars and 5 workshops for entrepreneurs in agroecology with the objective of providing “tools, mentoring and community building to empower producers across the country who produce food in a healthy way, taking care of the environment and people."[x]
A Move To Sustainable Agriculture
The Fernández administration has thus set out to create a Directorate of Agroecology within the Ministry of Agriculture to give structure to these disparate acts and the institutional force to organize and support collective action. The respected agronomist Eduardo Cerdá has been tapped to lead the office.[xi]
These steps by the current government move sustainable agriculture in the right direction, but must be deepened at every level, from the local municipality to the provincial legislatures to the nationally elected leaders.
The protection of Argentina’s natural capital, the greening of the supply chain, and the embrace of agroecology is vital for the short-term and long-term viability of Argentina’s economic development and debt repayment. It is also as much good politics as it is an expression of commitment to future generations of Argentines, South Americans, and the world.
Steven Hyland Jr., Ph.D., and Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, FRM
[i] Patrick Gillespie, “Cut Off From Credit, Argentina Gets Central Bank to Pay Bills,” Bloomberg, 21 April 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-21/cut-off-from-credit-argentina-gets-central-bank-to-pay-bills; Scott Squires and Ignacio Olivera Doll, “Debt-Ridden Argentina Can’t Stop Precious Dollars Draining Away,” Bloomberg News, 26 May 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-26/debt-ridden-argentina-can-t-stop-precious-dollars-draining-away; “Base Monetaria (en miles de millones de $),” Banco Central de la República Argentina, http://www.bcra.gov.ar/PublicacionesEstadisticas/Principales_variables_datos.asp; Banco Central de la República Argentina, https://www.bcra.gob.ar/Varios/English_information.asp [Accessed 3 June 2020]; Patrick Gillespie, “Soy Farmers Bet Against Peso Just as Argentina Needs Cash,” Bloomberg, 20 May 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-20/in-argentina-they-are-betting-the-farm-on-a-weaker-currency
[ii] “Coronavirus bump: Argentina’s Fernández rises in polls over handling of COVID-19,” Reuters, 7 May 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-argentina-politics/coronavirus-bump-argentinas-fernandez-rises-in-polls-over-handling-of-covid-19-idUSKBN22J1PE; “Fin de cuarentena en Argentina: control estricto y flexibilizaciones, según cada region,” La Nación, 3 June 2020, https://www.lanacion.com.ar/sociedad/cuando-termina-cuarentena-que-se-sabe-al-nid2352501; “South America a new COVID epicenter, Africa reaches 100,000 cases,” Reuters, 22 May 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-who-regions/south-america-a-new-covid-epicenter-africa-reaches-100000-cases-who-says-idUSKBN22Y2IV
[iii] Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath, “Argentina’s ebbing Parana River costs grains sector $244 million: exchange,” Reuters, 24 April 2020; Hugh Bronstein and Maximilian Heath, “Parched Parana River Likely to Hit Argentine Grain Exports Through September, “Reuters, 28 May 2020, https://www.agriculture.com/markets/newswire/parched-parana-river-likely-to-hit-argentine-grain-exports-through-september; “La expansión de la soja en Paraguay,” World Wildlife Federation, http://www.wwf.org.py/que_hacemos/proyectos/iniciativa_de_transformacion_de_mercados_mti/la_expansion_soja_en_paraguay/ [Accessed 28 May 2020]
[iv] Jane Byrne, “Landslide, prolonged drought affecting Argentina’s port operations, corn and soy shipments,” FeedNavigator, 14 May 2020, https://www.feednavigator.com/Article/2020/05/14/Landslide-drought-affecting-Argentina-s-port-operations.
[v] Luis Vieira, “Argentina’s farmers grow and export less soybeans,” Successful Farming, 3 April 2020.
[vii] Pablo Gerchunoff, “El nudo argentino,” Le Monde Diplomatique, https://www.eldiplo.org/notas-web/el-nudo-argentino/
[viii] “The 10 Elements of Agroecology: Guiding the Transition to Sustainable Food and Agricultural Systems,” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, http://www.fao.org/3/i9037en/i9037en.pdf [Accessed 3 June 2020]
[ix] Pedro Moreno, “Hacia el desarrollo de la ecoenergías y la agroecología,” La Nación, 8 February 2020, https://www.lanacion.com.ar/opinion/columnistas/hacia-el-desarrollo-de-las-ecoenergias-y-la-agroecologia-nid2331909; “Prohibieron la venta de agroquímicos en La Pampa y Cabandié apoyó la medida,” InfoCampo, 28 May 2020, https://www.infocampo.com.ar/prohibieron-la-venta-de-agroquimicos-en-la-pampa-y-cabandie-apoyo-la-medida/
[x] Koop, “Depleted soils drive Argentina to sustainable farming”; “Breves del campo: lo que se viene,” La Nación, 25 April 2020, https://www.lanacion.com.ar/economia/campo/sin-titulo-nid2357934
[xi] “El Ministerio de Agricultura anunció la creación de la Dirección de agroecología,” Uno Entre Rios, 13 February 2020, https://www.unoentrerios.com.ar/el-pais/el-ministerio-agricultura-anuncio-la-creacion-la-direccion-agroecologia-n2564219.html; “Eduardo Cerdá: ‘La agroecología entiende la naturaleza,’” La Nueva, 27 May 2019, https://www.lanueva.com/nota/2019-5-27-17-6-0-eduardo-cerda-la-agroecologia-entiende-a-la-naturaleza