Argentina suspends corn exports to ensure domestic food supplies

By Maximilian Heath

BUENOS AIRES, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Argentina will suspend sales of corn for export until Feb. 28, the agriculture ministry said on Wednesday, announcing the surprise move as part of the government's effort to ensure ample domestic food supplies.

The move by the world's No. 3 corn supplier was a sign of tightening global food supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This decision is based on the need to ensure the supply of grain for the sectors that use it as a raw material for the production of animal protein such as pork, chicken, eggs, milk and cattle, where corn represents a significant component of production costs," the statement said.

Argentina's government is struggling to control food price inflation and help low-income families contending with an economy shrinking during the pandemic. Buyers can still book corn from Argentina, but only for a shipping date March 1 or later.

Russia this month announced a grain export quota and wheat tax as President Vladimir Putin criticized rising food prices.

And major agricultural exporter Brazil has imported staples including soybeans. Chicago Board of Trade corn futures notched a 6-1/2-year high on Wednesday after Argentina's announcement.

The South American grains powerhouse is also a big international soybean and wheat supplier as well as the world's top exporter of soymeal livestock feed.

"To date, 34.23 million tonnes of corn from the 2019/20 season has been authorized for export, out of a exportable total of 38.50 million tonnes," the statement said.

"The objective of the measure is that the remaining 4.27 million tonnes remain available for domestic consumption, in order to ensure the supply during the summer months when the supply of cereal tends to be scarce," it added.

Farmers and other players in Argentina's corn chain traditionally oppose this type of intervention in the markets.

"We are absolutely surprised. It does not make sense. There was never a lack of corn in Argentina," said Alberto Morelli, head of Argentina's MAIZAR corn industry chamber.

Argentine growers are currently sowing corn for the 2020/21 season. The Rosario grains exchange forecasts a 48 million tonne crop when harvesting begins in April.

Santiago del Solar, a farmer in the bread-basket province of Buenos Aires, called the export suspension a "senseless" move that would damage business confidence.

"Less confidence leads to less production. We have enough corn to supply the domestic chain. This will irritate farmers," del Solar said. "Is wheat next?" (Reporting by Maximilian Heath and Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Diane Craft and David Gregorio)

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