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