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BUSINESS: Argentina is the land of plenty for new soya king

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Argentina is the land of plenty for new soya king
SOURCE: Taipei Times, Taiwan
AUTHOR: The Observer, Villa Canas and Tres Isletas, Argentina,
         by Rory Carroll & Oliver Balch
DATE:   22.05.2007

Argentina is the land of plenty for new soya king

The ambition of Manuel Santos Uribelarrea is written in big black  
letters on the side of machines reaping the plains of South America:  
MSU. It is harvest time and the state-of-the-art behemoths bearing his  
initials have a mission to revolutionize agriculture, change the  
world's eating habits and make their owner very, very wealthy.

At 28, Santos is well on his way to achieving those goals, making him  
a lord of the pampas, literally master of all he surveys, and one of  
Argentina's most eligible bachelors. His company owns more than  
100,000 hectares of farmland in Argentina and Uruguay, is expanding  
into Brazil and has plans for Ukraine.

The empire, however, is controversial -- it is built on soya.  
Fast-expanding soya plantations are blamed for the destruction of  
forests across South America, posing an even graver threat than  
logging. The outcry has led to the tabling of a 'forestry emergency'  
bill in Argentina's lower house of Congress. It would usher in a  
one-year moratorium on deforestation and oblige all 23 provinces to  
control and protect the region's biggest and most diverse eco-system  
outside Brazil.

Most soya producers shun the limelight and any possible association  
with the bulldozers. Santos, long-haired and fizzing with energy, is  
different. Speaking at Villa Canas, amid an ocean of soya four hours  
west of Buenos Aires, the founder and president of MSU said that his  
company's drive for efficiency was helping to feed the world.

"The environmentalists are extremists who want to leave everything as  
it is," he said. "But soya is a great crop. It is an important part of  
sustainable development. We are contributing to Argentina and a better  

Some "irrational" producers flouted environmental regulations, he  
conceded, but MSU was not one of them. Santos showed off his new  
headquarters -- a gleaming one-storey complex, in the middle of  
nowhere, where youthful agronomists and managers tracked satellite  
weather images, the Chicago stock exchange and economic reports on  
China, one of its biggest markets. Just 157 staff, backed by part-time  
contractors, monitor two dozen sites comprising the size of a small  

"We produce more at lower cost, making food cheaper. Everybody wins,"  
Santos beamed.

Argentina's traditional reliance on cattle and grain changed in the  
late 1990s when the US biotech giant Monsanto turned the pampas into a  
springboard for genetic modification (GM). New herbicide-tolerant soya  
crops turned the countryside brown, with 10 million of the current 16  
million hectares sowed in the past decade. All of it was genetically  
modified, Santos said. The controversy over GM was an irrelevance.

"A political thing between the US and Europe," he shrugged.

More than 60 percent of processed food in a country like Britain is  
estimated to contain some type of soya, a versatile bean which ends up  
in breakfast cereals, biscuits, cheese, cakes, noodles, soups and  
sandwich spread. Also used widely in animal feed, and a key part of  
feeding China and India, it could yet grow more dominant through  
efforts to turn it into biofuel.

Six years ago Santos, just out of college, persuaded his father, a  
wealthy traditional farmer, to join the revolution. The young tycoon  
reinvests the profits to buy more land -- he thunders through his  
domain in an off-road Audi -- and plans almost to double his holding  
to 200,000 hectares within five years.

A residue of the old ways was evident over lunch at the family home, a  
102-year-old musty mansion filled with brocade and oil paintings.  
Between calls on his Blackberry, Santos used a silver bell to summon a  
waiter in a white jacket to clear away plates of veal, salad, fruit  
and chocolate pudding.

The company, which concentrates on producing and leaves the processing  
to others, considers itself one of the top five growers in Argentina.  
Soya is now by far the country's most valuable export and a driver of  
Argentina's recovery from the 2001 economic crash. A hefty 27.5  
percent tax on exports - worth: 2.6 billion (US$5.13 billion) in the  
first quarter of last year -- has become a significant source of  

Feeders of the world, dashing innovators, national economic saviors --  
there is some truth to that. There is, however, a dark side to many  
soya barons.

"They are destroying our forest. These large companies leave nothing  
but smoke and ashes," said Oswaldo Maldonado, 48, who wakes up every  
morning in a rural corner of Chaco, in northern Argentina, and sees  
what the soya bulldozers have wrought overnight: more miles of  
splintered tree trunks and flattened vegetation.

Traditionally, soya cultivation was concentrated in the three central  
provinces of Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Santa Fe, but demand is driving  
the plantations into the northern forests.

If deforestation continues at its present rate, environmentalists  
predict that the lower forest ranges of the Yungas will disappear by  
2010. The bush savannah of the Chaco, which covers a quarter of  
northern and central Argentina, is also threatened. More than 2.3  
million hectares of dry and humid vegetation has been cleared for soya  
since 1995.

Agronomists warn that the Chaco's dry bush is unsuitable for intensive  
agriculture. All the same, small farmers recently took the opportunity  
of a new highway in the arid, western Chaco to try their hand at  
growing soya. Miles of now disused scrubland bear testimony to their  
lack of success.

"Now the land is useless for forestry or agriculture," said Rolando  
Nunez, co-ordinator of a regional campaign organization. "Although we  
do have a nice, new trunk road."

As soya advances, the rural population retreats to cities. In Chaco  
province, three in every four people now live in urban areas, many in  

Last year leading European supermarkets, food manufacturers and  
fast-food chains pledged not to use soya illegally grown in Brazil's  
Amazon. Argentina, however, remains vulnerable. Campaigners accuse the  
government of turning a blind eye. In the Chaco savannah, for example,  
there is just one inspector to monitor deforestation.

Out in the field, however, the air thick with dust from harvesting,  
Santos gazed with almost childlike delight at the fleet of vehicles  
traversing the terrain.

"Look at them. Beautiful," he said.

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