World News

Food shortages worsen amid Argentine farm strike

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Food shortages at Buenos Aires grocery stores deepened on Thursday as farmers kept up a protest over soy export taxes that has sparked a political crisis for President Cristina Fernandez.

A demonstrator carries a bowl as he walks away from the cooking area during a rally in front of the Argentina's Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires, June 18, 2008. Argentina's government held a massive rally in the center of the capital on Wednesday, seeking to show its strength in a bitter three-month dispute with farmers over export taxes. The conflict has eroded the popularity of President Cristina Fernandez, and in an effort to ease tensions she asked Congress on Tuesday to ratify the tax hike on soy exports that triggered the country's deepest political crisis in six years. REUTERS/Martin Acosta

Truckers and some farmers manning roadblocks have virtually paralyzed cargo traffic in key areas across the country for nearly a week, leaving trucks carrying food, milk and other goods stalled on highways.

“There is a shortage of a lot of foods like milk and dairy-based products, of which there are practically none,” Yolanda Durin, the head of an association of small grocery stores in Buenos Aires, told a local radio station.

“There’s no chicken ... and there is a shortage of flour and cooking oil,” she said.

Farmers have staged strikes and roadblocks since March after the government hiked export taxes on sunseed and soy -- the country’s top crop. The move angered farmers who say small-scale producers could go out of business at a time when global food prices are rising.

Argentina is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of soybeans, corn, wheat and beef. Farmers say they are only halting trucks carrying grains at roadblocks. But cargo truckers, who have been left without work due to the dispute, have blocked highways in protest.

Related Coverage


Late on Wednesday, farmers announced plans to continue their protest through Friday, hours after Fernandez led tens of thousands of supporters in a public rally aimed at showing public support for her decision to keep the tax increase.

“Extending the roadblocks by two days is making everything worse,” said Alberto Williams, vice president of the Buenos Aires Butcher Shop Owners Association. “Most butcher shops haven’t received any meat for over a week.”

Food and fuel shortages have also hit other parts of the country.

The lengthy farm conflict has eroded Fernandez’s popularity as some Argentines complain of her uncompromising stance in dealing with the farmers. Government officials have accused the farmers of seeking to undermine the government with an “economic coup.”

A new opinion poll released by the Poliarquia consulting group showed 20 percent of people polled had a positive image of Fernandez, down from 47 percent when the conflict erupted in March.

Thousands of Argentines took to the streets in cities across the country on Monday in pot-banging protests calling on the government to resolve the dispute.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

Hoping to quell the conflict and counter farmer criticism that the government imposed the tax without congressional approval, Fernandez sent a bill to Congress on Tuesday to ratify the tax.

But farm leaders rejected the move, saying it calls for a “yes” or “no” vote by lawmakers without any possibility of modifying the tax. Farmers say the tax threatens to put small growers out of business.

Fernandez defends the high farm export taxes as a way to combat inflation and redistribute wealth in a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty.

The protracted farm conflict has sent global soy prices higher and pressured Argentine bonds in recent weeks.

Writing by Kevin Gray; editing by Jim Marshall