Buenos Aires, December 10, 2019. In an unexpected last-minute turn, the incoming president Alberto Fernandez appointed the agricultural engineer Luis Basterra as his Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries. The decision also involved maintaining the ministerial level of the government agricultural branch and not downgrading it into a secretariat under the Ministry of Productive Development, led by the economist Matias Kulfas.
That decision was well received by the farm sector, which was concerned about the Ministry being downgraded to a secretariat, thus losing autonomy and influence in the Fernandez’ cabinet.
Sixty-one years old, and coming from the northern province of Formosa, Basterra has a long career in the public sector. In 2009, he was appointed as deputy chairman of the Agriculture National Research Institute (INTA) during Cristina Kirchner’s second mandate. After that, he accessed the National Congress as a representative of Formosa province, a mandate he renewed in 2015 for another four years.
In his first mandate, he headed the Agriculture and Livestock committee of the lower chamber. When coalition Cambiemos took office, he continued in the committee as deputy chairman.
Last October 24, he was elected for a third mandate. There were some rumors that the Formosa governor, Gildo Insfran, could have influence over the elected president Alberto Fernandez about his choice of the new Minister of Agriculture, and, in that case, Basterra would be the candidate. But as weeks passed by, rumors decreased and another candidate gained press, until past December 4, when Basterra was informed that he was chosen to run de Ministry.
People who know Basterra remark three valuable aptitudes: a) his knowledge about the rural reality, from large-scale farms to family farms; b) his commitment with the Peronist values and doctrine; and, c) his empathic personality that allows him to establish constructive dialogues with anyone.
But there is another reason, and perhaps the most relevant, that made him be chosen for this duty. Unlike his predecessor, Miguel Etchevehre, who came from a rural union (Sociedad Rural Argentina), Mr. Basterra does not respond to any business corporation. He is a political militant who only responds to his governor, and, from now on, to the new president Alberto Fernández.
Challenges and opportunities
Basterra will have to deal with the tension of the new administration. On the one hand, the government needs dollars from the exports, and the farming sector is the most dynamic economic sector to serve this goal. But on the other hand, the economy in recession needs Pesos to start a re-activation process, and again, the farming economy could provide them by means of an increase in the export tax rate. But, as everybody knows, the higher the export taxes, the lower the grain production.
But Basterra could undertake his work based on a positive agenda. When he was a representative, in the lower chamber, he impulsed a bill to rebate farmers for their investments in fertilizers. The bill was approved by the lower chamber but it was frozen in the Senate, in 2016, by the coalition Cambiemos. A large use of fertilizers could have boosted grain production thus providing more dollars to the economy.
The other opportunity is to impulse an amendment of the old Plant Breeders Act. President Macri failed to modify it due to his commitment to the rural unions, which could not agree with the basis for the reform. But sales of certified soybean seeds are plunging and this affects investments in innovation and R+D by the local seed companies (global companies are focused on hybrids).
Thirdly, his Ministry could collaborate with the industrial branch of the Government (Ministry of Productive Development) to accelerate the value-added process in the grain value chain. It is a way to increase the average value of exports, and at the same time to generate employment.