Suspicion Over Argentine Data Fans Farming Tensions

Missing government data on Argentina’s multibillion-dollar farming s ector is causing increasing frustration for farmers and grain traders in the agricultural powerhouse.

Argentina is a top world supplier of soy, wheat, corn and beef but its farming industry is having to use private estimates as routine data from harvest forecasts to corn sales are pulled from official websites or sent out weeks late.

The monthly crop report for March was posted by the Agriculture Secretariat 12 days late on March 30, only to be withdrawn hours later because “it is a preliminary document that contains errors.”

Critics say President Cristina Fernandez’s centre-left administration has been underreporting inflation for two years and analysts say recent economic growth statistics have been overly rosy as the global crisis kicks in.

Key energy data, state welfare statistics and some poverty-related figures have vanished, analysts and social groups say.

Agricultural data started disappearing last year, making it increasingly difficult for grains exporters and growers to plan their businesses and aggravating a bitter year-long dispute with the government over export taxes on soybeans.

“The issue is getting more and more serious. These figures have to be public in a normal economy so everyone involved in business can plan their activities and future investments,” said agricultural analyst Pablo Adreani from the Buenos Aires-based consulting firm AgriPac.

FOUL PLAY?

The debacle over the closely watched monthly crop production report will deepen critics’ suspicions of foul play at the Agriculture Secretariat.

The withdrawn forecast for the soybean harvest estimated production at between 37 million and 39 million tonnes, far lower than other private forecasts and that of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, an industry benchmark.

“Everyone uses the production data. It’s very important for anyone involved in the market to know what a country’s grains supply is, even more so when it’s an exporter like ours,” said Patricia Bergero, an analyst at the Rosario grains exchange.

“It’s a shame the secretariat has become less efficient than it used to be on this issue,” she added.

Statistics published by the government for years have been disappearing since the Agriculture Secretariat ceded control of the grains and beef trade to another state agency, the ONCCA, in mid-2008.

Gradually, the Secretariat has stopped updating routine tables detailing weekly grains export commitments and purchases by soy crushers. Weekly corn and wheat sales, with details of buyer countries, have not been published since last June.

Some new information has been posted in its place, but it smells like a conspiracy to grains exporters, meat packers and farmers, whose relationship with Fernandez seems irreparably damaged after months of conflict.

They say the government is withholding data and introducing new export procedures to give it greater leeway in its battle to control domestic food inflation.

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