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Brazil’s peak soybean export season collides with COVID-19

Port workers threaten to strike over fears of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- In Brazil, some port workers, especially in Santos, the South American country’s largest port, have considered a strike due to fears of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

At least two labor unions threatened to strike, but none have, yet. And even those unions have since reconsidered. So, as of Monday, there are only talks of a strike at any Brazilian port.

This Week’s Strike Threats

The Ministry of Infrastructure took measures last week to avoid disruptions, working together with Brazilian states to detail and harmonize proceedings at ports, ensure the safety of workers, and keep the flow of goods across the country, according to Daniele Siqueira, a Curitiba, Parana-based market analyst with AgRural.

She explains that Brazil is a federal republic and 26 states have the autonomy to close their borders, for example.

READ MORE: As coronavirus drives down commodity prices, farm groups ask for aid

“This is troublesome in times like this (during the pandemic), when nobody is completely sure about what is the best thing to do – thus the importance that the federal government issues clear guidelines,” Siqueira told Successful Farming at Agriculture.com.

Siqueira, a Curitiba, Parana-based, market analyst with AgRural, says that the coronavirus and Brazil’s busiest time of the year for soybean exports are colliding.

While not related to any strike, Brazil’s soybean shipments have slowed this year.

On Monday, Brazil’s Foreign Trade Ministry (FTM) released its weekly data on shipments.

This week’s report shows that 7.2 million metric tons of soybeans shipped in March (until 3/20). That equates to a daily average of 479,000 mmt., compared with 445,000 mmt. in March 2019.

“If nothing more serious happens in the coming days, we might establish a new record for March, surpassing Mar 2017 (9.0 mmt),” Siqueira says.

“We’ve had a vessel jam at our ports since February, due to a delayed harvest, excessive rainfall in February, and even the coronavirus outbreak in China,” she says.

Part of what Brazil would have shipped in February was carried over to March.

“So, we have a huge export program for March and part of it will have to be carried to April and so on. That’s what makes China nervous right now – along with the fear that the pandemic disrupts our logistics even more, of course,” Siqueira says.

Farmer Strikes

“We haven’t had any farmer strike in Brazil, not even a threat. They’re working normally – although with some restrictions and sanitary controls, of course. Argentina had something like a farmer strike a couple of weeks ago (they stopped selling for a few days), but that had to do with a hike in the export tax, and it wasn’t related to the pandemic,” she says.

In Argentina, port workers have considered strikes after the coronavirus outbreak, but no active strike at the moment.

Last week, trucks could not enter one port; the mayor of the city had imposed a very strict control because of the pandemic, but that seems to be solved by now, Siqueira says.

Soybean Export Impact

It seems that the market is baking in some of this strike information already.

READ MORE: What COVID-19 means down on the farm

“The problem, especially with soybeans, is that China is almost back to normal from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and needs soybeans to crush because its soymeal inventories are too tight right now. That makes soymeal prices go up,” she says.

Although China doesn’t import soymeal, the uncertainties around Argentina, with all the headlines about strikes and all that, make the soybean market even more nervous, the Brazilian market analyst says.

When Argentina fails to export soymeal, it’s normally the U.S. who fills the gap – and that is good news for soymeal and soybean prices in Chicago, she says.

If Brazil and Argentina are able to tame the pandemic and keep essential services going on, exports will not be affected so badly, she says.

“The problem is that April and May are the peak of Brazilian soybean exports – and likely the peak of coronavirus infections here, too. It’s a sad coincidence. But the government, farmers, and exporters are doing all they can to keep our soybean exports at normal levels and pace,” the market analyst says.

Corn Exports

In Brazil, there is little concern about corn exports right now because it exports corn in the second half of the year. But in Argentina, March normally is a strong month for corn exports.

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