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OP-ED | 07-09-2019 01:11

Food for thought

With no market mayhem to crowd out all other news (as August’s weird alternation of calm one week and chaos the next now continues into its second month), food was one common denominator of the past week’s main issues.

With no market mayhem to crowd out all other news (as August’s weird alternation of calm one week and chaos the next now continues into its second month), food was one common denominator of the past week’s main issues – regarding both those who produce it and those who consume it. While social activist Juan Grabois controversially injected agrarian reform into campaign debate, there is a growing groundswell in the opposition in general (and among Greater Buenos Aires Peronist mayors and the pickets blocking the 9 de Julio thoroughfare for long periods last week in particular) in favour of declaring a “national food emergency.”

Of these two issues, the latter undoubtedly carries more immediacy but agrarian reform also warrants serious analysis – not so much in itself as for the noise it makes. The proposal of Grabois is not so much right or wrong as anachronistic. Almost a century has passed since the “oligarchy” of the Rural Society largely monopolised Argentina’s wealth – even before the transition from meat and wheat to soy transformed land ownership altogether with the pools renting land from traditional farmers, thus creating a curious reverse feudalism whereby the landowners were the paupers and the tenants the capitalists. Agrarian reform to redistribute land into smallholdings would only intensify these trends while the 5,000-hectare cap on land ownership proposed by Grabois would work against the economies of scale needed to finance the increasingly intensive technical input into agriculture (including artificial intelligence and big data).

Grabois is evidently no agronomist but his petard only contributes to a climate jeopardising a repetition of this year’s record 140-million-ton harvest, even if last year’s drought does not recur.

International prices may be in dollars but farmers receive pesos for their grain and need enough of those to cover their costs – currency volatility conspires against this, as do the capital controls introduced last weekend. Little enough incentive to sow in the present without a future posing the likely triumph of a presidential ticket including the president who tried to impose a sliding scale of export duties with a peak of 90 percent in 2008 and now the revival of agrarian reform. Be careful what you wish for, they say – Grabois might actually get the subsistence farmer he idealises and craves.

The clamour to declare a national food emergency is an extreme example of the “grieta” chasm plaguing politics and impeding serious discussion of the real problems. While the lunatic fringe of the opposition throws out wild figures like 40 percent of the country starving, the government observes a blanket silence but the issue is far more complex than these two extremes.

Simplistic and opportunistic as opposition statements on this issue often are, they also lack clarity. Multiple bills have been presented to Congress while there is already legislation in the statute books dating back to 2002, when four people out of every seven were below the poverty line.

Some proposals come close to having free food replace virtually free utility bills and transport fares as the new Kirchnerite mantra – since underprivileged families cannot afford to feed their children, it is argued, free canteen meals should be universalised as much as possible with the added benefit of leaving these families free to spend their scant income on other items, thus reviving a stricken consumer market.

Yet it should also be underlined that a food emergency was proposed by the moderate presidential candidate Roberto Lavagna before anybody else and that there are genuine problems which the government cannot escape with denial or silence. While a third of Argentines are below the poverty line (and counting), this grows to nearly a half among children, given larger families in poorer neighbourhoods, and now the minimum pension is starting to lose the battle against rampant inflation too. School and other canteens are more overcrowded and overstretched than ever yet the government refuses to update its 10-billion-peso budget.

But rather than either denialism or demagogy everybody should be insisting on a much clearer idea of what we are talking about. Nothing seems simpler than an empty stomach yet the issue is complex.

Before concluding that food is priced beyond countless families, we should look at the incredible price differences amid a volatility breeding greed and panic, ranging from daylight robbery to discounts to adjust to recession. In a world where the overweight outnumber the underweight fivefold, obesity is a bigger problem here than undernourishment, even and perhaps especially among the poor (commonly blamed on their ignorance but more often their lack of options to junk food).

All food for thought. Perhaps time for all parties to be a little more realistic.

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