Argentina may have to import beef soon

by Bryan Salvage
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BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — Argentina may soon be forced to import beef to keep its meat-loving citizens with an adequate beef supply, according to The Associated Press. Although government efforts to keep meat affordable have allowed Argentines to consume record amounts of beef this year, it has come at the expense of a dwindling number of domestic producers.

Cattle ranchers in that country, with little or no profit left in meat, are selling out, even slaughtering the cows needed to maintain their herds.

President Cristina Fernandez has said her government must now protect consumers at a time when booming soy production has taken over 32 million acres of grassland once used for cattle ranching. Ms. Fernandez’s government has also paid huge subsidies for massive feedlot operations where previously grass-fed cattle are fattened on corn and grain.

What’s more, it still takes three years from when a calf is born for a cut of beef to reach the supermarket. The price of beef, set weekly by government bureaucrats, is roughly $2 dollars a lb., which is less than a pizza, which takes minutes to make.

Such low prices have Argentines practically gorging on steaks. By August of this year, Argentines consumed more than the average body-weight in beef — nearly 165 lbs., the most in 15 years, relays the Chamber of Commerce of the Argentine Meat Industry.

According to AP, most Argentines are against replacing beef with other meats. And seafood is rarely seen on dinner tables, while vegetarians are generally considered as culturally suspect. A typical mixed grill in that country includes ribs, steaks, sausages and even intestines.

During the first eight months of 2009, Argentina's meat industry slaughtered approximately 11 million head of cattle — more than any similar period in the past 20 years.

"By 2011, the shortage will be evident and it will be impossible to continue without importing beef," predicted Hugo Biolcati, president of the Argentine Rural Society.

Adding to Argentina’s beef challenge is the worst drought in 70 years in about one-third of its farm belt. This has forced some ranchers to sell their underweight cattle.

Once beef production fails to meet demand, beef prices will either significantly increase or fixed-price meat will suffer widespread shortages. This would mean Argentines would either have to eat less beef or import their beef.

Numbering approximately 55 million head, cattle still outnumber the 49 million people in Argentina. But that country’s stock is expected to have 3 million fewer calves next year — cattle that would have produced 600,000 tons of meat at slaughter.

Even with steep taxes, beef exports totaled 4.4 million tons in 2008, worth $1.5 billion. This year's numbers aren't in yet, but the chamber expects a steep decline in 2010.

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