Ranchers Split on Argentinean Cattle Breeding Law

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New laws intended to increase the numbers of cattle restrict ranchers in Argentina from slaughtering any pregnant cow or any head of cattle under 660 pounds. But the new law has led to a split between cattle breeders, who believe the ban will help restore the country's herds, and ranchers who wonder how far Argentine officials will go in their efforts to bend the free market to their will.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the complicated relationship between two great fantasy authors.

First, this. It's no fantasy that Argentines love their beef. They eat more of it per capita than any other people. Now there's a new government ban on the slaughter of cows that weigh less than 660 pounds, and some ranchers worry it could change the whole beef industry. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

(Soundbite of cattle; mooing)

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Cows trip down the mud-smeared ramp of a cattle truck into corrals at this meat-packing plant an hour and a half outside Buenos Aires. Slaughterhouse owner Alberto Samid(ph) says the 5,000 cows killed here each week meet the government's new weight threshold to be phased in over several months. Samid says keeping young cows from market signals a significant shift in the cattle industry. An Argentine of Syrian dissent, Samid says he's lobbied for 20 years to keep cattle alive longer in order to replenish the national herd that's declined over the decades.

Mr. ALBERTO SAMID (Slaughterhouse Owner): (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `It's simple math. If we come up with bigger animals,' he says, `we'll need fewer animals to produce the same amount of beef and still supply the market.'

Samid wrote a book about how Argentina can triple its beef production by improving irrigation and cultivating unused land in this vast, fertile country.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

McCARTHY: Samid's own love of beef is plain as he tucks into lunch at the local cattlemen's haunt; a cavernous place filled with dark wood, buzzing prosperous ranchers and the sizzle of their steaks. A former congressman, Samid devours his perfectly cooked filet while lecturing on the finer points of eating older beef.

Mr. SAMID: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `There's little flavor in young cows,' he says, smacking his lips on a steak from a three-year-old cow. `Once the locals get used to eating meat from older animals,' he declares, `they won't go back.'

Under the new rules, meat from young cows will disappear from the store shelves well into 2006. But that's unlikely to dampen the country's devotion to beef. The USDA says on average, Argentines eat almost 90 pounds of beef per person per year, while Americans eat only 65 pounds per person

A leading economic indicator, beef and its price are closely watched here, especially as inflation creeps into the double digits; a worrisome sign for the government of President Nestor Kirchner, who has seen inflation ruin the economy and past administrations. The government has intervened in a number of sectors to keep prices down, such as with meat and dairy. Officials predict that the government ban on young meat will also raise the amount of beef in the market. Economic analyst Esteban Fernandez Medrano says the Kirchner government inclines toward intervention, which he says is fine up to a point.

Mr. ESTEBAN FERNANDEZ MEDRANO (Economic Analyst): What the government does here actually introduces some distortion in the meat market, which in the long term probably implies less investment and less growth of this sector.

McCARTHY: Federico Palacio, the owner of two ranches, says the government's restrictions will be costly for producers because their cattle must remain in the fields longer. He says that will mean more feed and more personnel to care for the herd. Ranchers may also need more pastures at a time when cattle producers are competing for land increasingly given over to soybeans. Palacio says he'll survive.

Mr. FEDERICO PALACIO (Cattle Rancher): (Through Translator) But I cannot say the same thing about smaller ranchers. They will not be able to make it.

McCARTHY: Palacio says the government is interfering with the ranchers' way of life. Palacio says that young beef is a lucrative commodity, that cattlemen know the industry best and that the government's new weight restrictions will backfire.

Mr. PALACIO: (Through Translator) These measures that are being implemented are just Band-Aids. There is no real, long-term state policy behind all this, and those of us who are in the countryside believe that we have a right to know what to expect, to know where we are standing.

McCARTHY: Landowners across Latin America facing interventionist governments are want to reach for their constitution to defend their case. Palacio pulls a worn book from a shelf and recounts the work of a thinker who helped form the basis of the Argentine Constitution.

Mr. PALACIO: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `Juan Batista Alberdi,' he says, `wrote that no country has the right to tell its citizens what they can and cannot produce in industry or trade. Thus,' Palacio says, `there's a constitutional right to choose what to breed and how'...

Mr. PALACIO: (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: interpretation the current government is not inclined to accept. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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