Covid-19 spike hits at peak soy export season

Chinese government tries to calm food security fears, while Brazil and Argentina work to guarantee functioning logistics chains

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covid-19 soy logistics Brazil Argentina

The Covid-19 outbreak has caused raised questions about the ability of Brazil's logistics network to get soy to China (image: Alamy)

The coincidence of the expected peak of the Covid-19 epidemic in Brazil and Argentina with the soy export season spanning April and May has sparked concerns in top buyer country China as roadblocks and transport worker sickness create logistics problems.

During a press conference on the subject in early April, Wei Baigang of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture made it clear that the government was focusing on soy, one of the few essential foodstuffs that China imports in massive quantities. Imported soy is mainly used to feed China’s vast pig population

“[We] will strengthen coordination with exporting countries and continue to promote plans to revitalise soya at home to ensure supply,” he said, referring to a policy released in October last year that aims to develop Chinese self-sufficiency for key crops. Wei also said China would resume importing soy from the US following the latest trade agreement between the two countries, sparking concerns in Brazil.

There is a concern that truckers will get sick, since they are extremely exposed

Meanwhile, agribusiness in Brazil has moved to allay fears. According to Sérgio Mendes, executive director of the Brazilian Association of Grain Exporters (ANEC), coordination between the ministries of agriculture, infrastructure, and health will stop the crisis from decimating the supply chain.

“They are doing a great job, working quickly and anticipating events with decrees that would normally take weeks,” he said.

Yet worries persist. In Brazil, China’s main soy supplier, truck drivers have complained about their exposure to Covid-19 and the lack of essential supplies on highways, since most businesses are closed.

In Argentina, the world’s third largest soy exporter, the government's Covid-19 isolation measures blocked access to 70 cities, alerting agribusiness to the risk of acute shortages in both the domestic and export markets over the next two months.

Shipments of soy, maize and other agricultural products were also delayed at the end of last month due to sanitary inspections by the Argentine government, which tested cargo ship crews for coronavirus infections.

Covid-19, soy and logistics

The pandemic and restrictions on movement have already affected Argentine grain exports, which saw revenues dip 6.9% in March compared to the same period last year.

37.6%

the growth in Brazil's soy exports in March compared to the same month last year

It was a different story in Brazil. According to the Brazilian Department of Foreign Trade, soy exports grew 37.6% last month compared to March 2019.

“We believe that any future specific impacts of Covid-19 could mainly reflect logistics issues related to the flow of exports,” Herson Brandão, Brazil’s secretary of foreign trade intelligence and statistics, told journalists. “We have information that exports of goods such as soy, petroleum and iron ore were not impacted.”

Chinese media have reported that stores of essential products are sufficient, in an attempt to quell worries about food security in a country that needs to feed a fifth of the world’s population with only around 7% of its arable land.

As the pandemic spreads, some countries like Kazakhstan have begun to limit exports to China. But although the Chinese government may have secure supplies of wheat and rice, the same cannot be said of soybeans.

“The countries that need special attention are [in] Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America”, said Fan Shenggen, professor at the School of Economics and Administration at China Agricultural University, in an interview with China Science Daily in late March. “Because these developing countries still suffer from hunger and malnutrition, they have much less capacity to deal with crises than developed countries in Europe and America”.

Government ensures flow of exports, but truckers worry

Officials from the Brazilian ministry of infrastructure wrote to Diálogo Chino claiming exports of commodities during April and May will be unaffected, and that work continues to maintain and improve roads, ensuring that soybeans and other raw materials can be shipped as normal.

The ministry has implemented a series of measures since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, including the nationwide coordination and maintenance of services essential to truckers, like mechanics’ workshops and tyre shops, as well as roadside restaurants, many of which have closed. It has also mapped the 130 support stations that remain open on federal motorways.

Other moves included flu vaccinations to reduce drivers’ vulnerabilities and enable quicker diagnoses, the temporary suspension of document renewal requirements for professional drivers.

But the Brazilian logistics network’s dependence on individual truckers continues to be its biggest weakness. Drivers are subject to working conditions that are often precarious, along with extremely volatile freight values. In 2018, a trucker strike knocked Brazilian GDP growth down by 1.2%.

If the goal is to invest in fighting the coronavirus, it is important to take care of truck drivers as well as doctors and nurses

Unions representing truckers, who transport about 60% of the country’s cargo are fearful of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the sector. Members of the National Confederation of Independent Transporters (CNTA) are working to provide working drivers with regular information on the coronavirus through WhatsApp.

“We need to be aware that there is a human being behind the wheel. Great care has been taken. There is a concern that truckers will get sick, since they are extremely exposed,” said Marlon Maues, executive adviser to the CNTA, which represents 800,000 truck drivers and 140 unions in Brazil.

Even so, there is much room for improvement. In early April, the Brazilian Association of Truck Drivers, which represents 560,000 drivers in the country across its 92 unions, wrote to Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, complaining about conditions on the roads and the lack of incentives for this sector:

“If the goal is to invest in fighting the coronavirus, it is important to take care of truck drivers as well as doctors and nurses.”