Argentine farm leader rules out strike
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's farmers want sweeping changes to government agricultural policy, but they will not stage commercial strikes in the short term, farm leader Eduardo Buzzi said on Thursday.
Buzzi, president of the Argentine Agrarian Federation, said grass-roots farmers were not calling for a repeat of the commercial strikes that disrupted the country's key grains shipments and helped fuel soaring global prices in 2008.
"Commercial strikes aren't seen in the short term," Buzzi told the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit in Buenos Aires. "(But) the second half of the year looks tricky ... if farmers' bad mood continues."
Buzzi, 49, became a household name during the protests and has been tipped for a political career in Argentina, one of the world's biggest suppliers of soy, corn, wheat and beef.
The nation's growers and ranchers are at odds with President Cristina Fernandez over export curbs, government intervention in local markets and export taxes.
Soybean shipments face a levy of 35 percent and it was Fernandez's bid to hike the levies to above 40 percent that triggered months of strikes and roadblocks that rattled financial markets two years ago.
Buzzi said the export taxes remained at the heart of farmers' discontent with the farm policies of the center-left administration.
"The export taxes are at confiscatory levels that are suffocating small-scale growers," he said, calling for soy export taxes to be cut to 25 percent, and scrapped altogether for the smallest producers.
"They should be at 2007 levels, which were bearable. That would be 10 percentage points less for all farmers and 35 points less for the smallest farmers," he added.
Farmers in Argentina, the world's No. 3 soybean supplier and the leading exporter of soyoil and soymeal, are nearing the end of the 2009/10 harvest and production is expected to be a record 54.8 million tonnes.
A devastating drought battered grains production last year, reducing the soy crop to 32 million tonnes.
The bumper harvest has helped ease farmers' bad mood, Buzzi said, adding that local farming associations were pinning hopes for change in government policy on Congress, where Fernandez suffered heavy losses in last year's mid-term election.
"Congress is the place we need to go to, because clearly the government isn't going to modify the export taxes or the ONCCA (state agricultural trade agency)," he said.
Farmers are demanding big changes to the ONCCA, the National Agricultural Commerce Control Office, which issues export permits and distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in state subsidies to millers and oilseed crushers in a bid to tame food prices.
Some farmers accuse ONCCA of favoring companies that have a friendly relationship with the government. Buzzi said soaring bread prices showed subsidies were failing.
About a dozen of the lawmakers elected last year campaigned on a pro-farming ticket. But differences between the four main farming groups have made it hard for the lawmakers to agree on measures to overhaul agriculture policy.
"There are big discrepancies between the four entities, but we have a responsibility to continue until 2011," said Buzzi, noting the presidential election year.
Buzzi has a 55-hectare family farm in the central province of Santa Fe and farms another 180 hectares in Chaco.
"It's very unlikely that I'd run for office in 2011 but it can't be ruled out," he said.
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