December 9, 2013
Loss of fertility threatens fieldsSaturday, October 26, 2013
Soils slowly turn to ‘sand’ due to low crop rotation
Argentina’s key resource, its agricultural soils, is being depleted by lack of crop rotation as soy farming encroaches on areas once used for corn, wheat and cattle grazing, according to local experts and a government source.
The loss of fertility is a slow-burning threat to crop yields at a time when importers are counting on Argentina’s resources to increase output to help meet the boom in demand expected for the decades ahead.
The geopolitical stakes are high after the Arab Spring and other uprisings were sparked in part by high food prices brought on by crop crises over recent years. China uses Argentine soybeans in animal feed, as the Asian giant's increasingly powerful middle class begins to demand a higher protein diet of beef and pork.
Within the Pampas farm belt, the trend toward soy at the expense of corn could rob Argentina of its natural advantage as an agricultural powerhouse in the decades ahead.
The country's farm sector has long feuded with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Her government limits corn and wheat exports through quotas that can be raised and lowered throughout the year, dampening competition among buyers and pushing growers toward soybeans, which are taxed at 35 percent but not subject to export curbs.
That's bad for soils in need of regular corn planting. The stalks left by corn provide mulch that allows rain to enter the ground. When water can't sink in, the runoff carries away soil nutrients and makes fields more vulnerable to summer dry spells.
"Because corn and wheat cultivation is punished by the government, farmers are forced to cut their risks, focus on short-term profits and plant soy," said Manuel Alvarado Ledesma, an agricultural consultant in Buenos Aires.
"If no incentive is provided to rotate crops, Argentina will deplete its soils, with the weakest areas turning into a sort of sand in a few years," he said.
Argentina's soy planting area has zoomed to a projected 20.65 million hectares for the current 2013/14 season from 14.5 million a decade earlier, according to the agriculture ministry.
Corn seedings are meanwhile projected at 5.7 million hectares this season, down from 6.1 million in the 2012/13 cycle but well above the 2.99 million hectares seeded ten years ago.
Farmers know that six million hectares of corn are not enough to balance 20 million hectares of soybeans.
"We want to provide as much grain as possible for our domestic market and for the world, and we want to do it in a sustainable way. But unfortunately our government policies do not allow us," said farmer David Hughes, who manages thousands of hectares in the key agricultural province of Buenos Aires.
SOIL GETS "BURNED"
Soy takes more out of the soil than farmers can afford to put back by way of fertilizers. Only 37 percent is restored, meaning that 63 percent of each season's loss remains lost, according to government data.
"The process of land degradation is a fact," said a government source with direct knowledge of the problem but who asked not to be identified.
"It is happening slowly in areas of the country with the best soils and faster in areas with lower soil quality. But it is happening," the source said. "Over the long term, the country is losing yield potential. That's the biggest danger."
Corn seeds and fertilizers are about twice as expensive in Argentina as those used in soy farming, another factor pushing growers to plant soy on top of soy.
"The soil is getting burned by the lack of organic material left behind by each corn crop," the government source said.
The area dedicated to Argentine wheat, which is also subject to export curbs, has meanwhile shrunk to 3.4 million hectares from 6 million ten years ago.
The US Department of Agriculture sees Argentina's 2013/14 soy output at 53.5 million tons, corn at a downwardly-revised 26 million tons and wheat at 12 million tons.
Officials have hinted at coming modifications to the export curbs as pressure mounts on the government to come to terms with farmers.
Mercosur negotiates free trade agreement with EU. The Mercosur yesterday chose Paraguay as its representative to carry on the negotiations with the European Union to achieve a free trade agreement. Uruguay’s President Josè Mujica and Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartés said yesterday drafts of the agreement will be presented in December and then evaluated by both groups. “All foreign ministers agreed that Paraguay will represent us in the negotiations with the European Union,” Mujica said.