March 10, 2021
Argentine green gold: milestones and secrets of soybeans 50 years after the first great harvest
It contributes 20 billion dollars, a third of total national exports. How it arrived in the country, the pioneers and key moments of the "yuyo" that is priced at $ 530 per ton.

This year, soy is celebrating half a century of successive milestones in our country, which turned it into Argentine green gold, the main export product and great support for the economy.

It wasn't magic. In this recent history there is a true epic, a profound technological and productive revolution, and the design, without any plan, of a new socio-economic structure of the country.

Just 50 years ago, soybeans were a botanical curiosity in our pampas. Cultivated in China for 5,000 years, glycine max (scientific name) reached the Río de la Plata more than 100 years ago, but since the oldest record, in 1909, it has gone through decades with much pain and little glory.

It was only in the 1970s that consolidation began. In the 71-72 season it jumps from 30,000 to 80,000 hectares and, with that definitive push, while 25 million Argentines "played" the '78 World Cup at home, soybeans exceeded one million hectares for the first time.

One day in 1971, botany professor Juan José Valla brought a plant to a classroom at the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Buenos Aires (FAUBA). He shook it and said with enthusiasm: “From this we are going to get flour, cooking oil, milk, and so that the breakfast is complete up to the material for the cup. This is soy ”.

Until then, everything was limited to the experimental, while corn and wheat reigned, a little less sunflower, and long ago, another oilseed: flax. Future agronomists did not know it. To see it in a lot, they had to get a summer scholarship at INTA in Cerro Azul (Misiones) or Cerrillos (Salta), where a couple of researchers had been accumulating information. In the faculty, you could see photos and some material in Super 8 that was in the library of the United States Embassy.

But in FAUBA a generation of pioneers of the technological wave was making its way, who would give it a new destiny. Among the teachers, two were fundamental for what was to come: Antonio Pascale and Carlos Remussi. The first, professor of the chair of Agricultural Climatology. The second, in charge of the chair of industrial crops. Both had done a lot of research on the adaptation possibilities of soy in the country.

Back then it was very difficult to grow a successful crop and harvest with reasonable yields. The main problem was the “vaneo”: the soybean grew well, it extended the flowers and it seemed that the beans would grow (it is a legume, like the pea) that house the grains, two or three per bean. But it didn't work. It was supposed to be a problem of synchronizing the crop cycle with the length of the day ...

Later they discovered that there was another problem: the green bug, a pest that was initially ignored. But later it was learned that this insect sucked sap and injected toxins that caused the abortion of grains.

In the private sphere, there were also very laudable attempts. The most ambitious was that of "Agrosoja", an undertaking by the unforgettable agronomist Ramón Agrasar. He, along with a couple of friends, had tried to introduce the crop commercially, but ran into another problem: the oil industry was organized around sunflower and flax. Both had the characteristic of yielding twice, in percentage of oil, than soybeans.

Soybeans only contain 18% oil, while flax and sunflower contained over 35% at the time. With this quantity, industrial plants relied on the principle of pressure extraction. Almost all the oil came out and what was left was a residual, called "cake" or expeller, which was used for forage.

But soybeans did not respond well to this system. When pressed, only 12/13% was extracted, leaving the expeller with the rest. The oil industry at that time did not show interest in modifying the processing system, for others that already existed: extraction using solvent. So, when the interest was oil, soybeans did not generate a special attraction, at least enough for the traditional industry to modify their systems.

But life gives you surprises… In 1972, an unexpected phenomenon was unleashed: the Peruvian anchovy crisis. What does this have to do with soy? Well, anchovy was the source of fishmeal used by all meat, egg and dairy producers worldwide. Some older than this old man will remember that "if you go to Chile" (or to Peru, and many other countries) chicken, eggs and cheese had, back in the '70s, an unmistakable fishy aftertaste.

It turns out that in that fateful 1972 it seems that the now famous Niña came and the Equatorial Pacific cooled down. Then, the schools of anchovy migrated or disappeared, entering into crisis the Peruvian economy, which was highly dependent on this resource. And simultaneously all the balanced food manufacturers suffered, which were based on the protein of fishmeal.

In 1974, another fundamental milestone occurs. Seed was lacking, in quantity and quality, and Armando Palau, undersecretary of Agriculture of the third Perón government, perceived that soy would have its place and that varieties had to be obtained. He talks to his friend Agrasar, from Agrosoja, who at that time was president of Dekalb and was angry with the government, because the National Grain Board had declared his new wheat varieties ("Lapacho" and "Tala" to be of public utility). ), going out to sell as seed what they had in their silo plants. "White bag" from the State.

But love is stronger. Don Ramón carried soy in his soul. He recommended the strains that he believed were the most promising, and put Palau in touch with the major public gene banks in the United States. A few weeks later, a couple of Air Force Hercules planes were bringing 80 tons of seed that were spread like a mana. The annotation of producers and seedlings was opened. Enrique Sabán, an official in the agricultural seeds area, was responsible for the operation.

It was the moment when humanity began to realize that if it wanted to advance in the consumption of animal proteins, it would not be possible if the main resource was fishmeal. The global saga of soy begins, which until then was only part of animal diets in the United States.

Brazil begins expansion into the Cerrados. Brasilia is just founded, following the nature of things. Important São Paulo businessmen, such as the textile company Hering, saw the opportunity to play chips early on.

Among the local industries, the ill-fated Sasetru group tries its luck north of Rosario with “Soyex”, a plant conceived to produce soybeans with the modern solvent method. The process consists of a physical treatment of the soybean to generate flakes that are then immersed in the solvent. After a process of stirring and temperature, all the oil comes out of the scales and remains in the solvent. The oil is then separated and the solvent is reused. Meanwhile, the scales are left without a drop of oil. They are pressed and a "pellet" with a high protein content is obtained. They built a plant of 800 tons per day of capacity, considered a white elephant at a time when the country did not produce soybeans. But they saw it coming. How to Agrazar.

Virtuous circle for consolidation

Soy did not rain by spontaneous generation. There were pioneers, colonizers and notorious failures. And there were also extraordinary achievers. And all of society, particularly the interior of the country, is fed by the success of a phenomenon of collective creation.

From those first varieties, other local ones arose. To date, more than 1,000 have registered, and 76% are Argentine developments. In Asgrow, which was later acquired by Nidera, Rodolfo Rossi, the great father of soybean genetics in Argentina, began to investigate.

At first, soybeans were installed as the alternative to make a summer crop behind wheat. Before, when wheat was harvested, you had to wait until the following year to do something else. Corn, sunflower or sow pasture for livestock. When the soybeans arrived, the possibility of sowing the "second" was opened.

In the late 1970s, December was hell in the fields. Wheat was harvested and farmers sped like crazy to plant soybeans. In the rush, many, many, burned the stubble to facilitate tillage. They entered with the plow, then implements that reduced the size of the bread of earth, passing a roll or a "rabasto", a kind of shovel that evened the soil. Because if the soil was uneven afterwards, you couldn't harvest everything.

That labor was doubly expensive. On the one hand, iron and liters of fuel. On the other hand, an enormous deterioration in the fertility of the soils, subjected to indiscriminate tillage. That's what gave soybeans an early "soil-destroying" stamp.

But soon, at the end of the 80s, direct sowing (SD) made its way, which some pioneers had been trying for years, such as Rogelio Fogante, in the south of Córdoba. In 1989, Víctor Trucco from Santa Fe promoted the founding of the Argentine Direct Sowing Association (Aapresid) with 23 members; in 2003 there were more than 2,000.

Soybeans were the colonizer of a different production system. Within a few years the SD was adopted by almost the majority of farmers. Fuel savings, second-rate soybean implantation speed, less machinery.

The plow and implement factories were quickly converted. They all set their sights on the planter. Argentina managed to compete successfully with international technology, despite the high costs and the vicissitudes of the entire local industry. Today several companies of different sizes export their seeders to the old and new world.

Meanwhile, a group of young people, under the leadership of Gerardo Bartolomé, had created DONMARIO the company that in 40 years achieved several milestones: they promoted the shorter maturity groups, to gain a 20% yield from one year to another, they conquered the Brazilian market for soybeans and they are already standing firm in the United States. From the first soybean variety, Mitchell, launched in 1984, to the success of the DM 46i20 IPRO STS this last season, they grew steadily. And in the next campaign it will distinguish itself by offering all the technologies available in soy with cutting-edge genetics for the various productive regions of the country.

In the '90s, biotechnology arrived, which facilitated direct planting thanks to soy resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide as demonized as "yuyo". However, from the use of this phytosanitary, production began to grow by leaps and bounds, at a rate of 4 million tons per year. The area went from 4 to 20 million hectares. Lands condemned to a low productivity cattle ranch, entered a virtuous agricultural rotation, in direct sowing. Fields freed from the scourge of perennial weeds, of "compulsory combat", and that nobody controlled because there was no use for it.

The then Secretary of Agriculture, and today Chancellor, Felipe Solá, understood and on March 25, 1996, almost 25 years ago, he approved the 40-3-2 transgenic event, better known for RR (Roundup Ready) soybeans. The 1998/1999 season was the first in which this oilseed surpassed corn in production, with 20 million tons. In the 2014/2015 campaign it reached 61.4 million tons: triple in 15 years.
Withholdings: impact on policy

Few events had as much impact on Argentine politics in recent years as the mobile withholdings that were imposed on all grains, on March 11, 2008. With soy as the protagonist of the economy, Resolution 125 began as "a conflict of the powerful Kirchner against the field without votes "...

But, from the progressive massive involvement, in the early morning of July 17 of that year, the "no positive" vote of then Vice President Julio Cobos collapsed the measure. That unprecedented discussion about taxes caused a social rift. Among other distances, it generated that of the current president and vice president of the Nation, for a decade. In many cases, ideological differences have persisted since then.

In the Argentine political imagination it is considered that soybeans were a blessing for Néstor Kirchner and not so much for the governments of Cristina Kirchner. However, the male of the presidential couple did not enjoy high international prices and received lower percentages for export duties. The record for the international price of soybeans, 650 dollars per ton, happened in Chicago in September 2012, in the middle of a global drought.

“What left the feeling that Nestor made better use of the soybeans was not the international price but other conditions. Soy grew a lot in volume and the real exchange rate was much better, with a State that was much smaller than in the following governments ”, explains David Miazzo, chief economist of the Fundación Agropecuaria para el Desarrollo de la Argentina (FADA) .

What remains clear is that "the yuyo" today is a green gold for the administration of Alberto Fernández. The international price is around 530 dollars per ton and, of that value, almost two thirds remain in the state coffers, via withholdings and the exchange gap.

The nickname "yuyo", strictly speaking, did not appear as derogatory, but as a compliment. Until politicians changed the direction, producers complimented soybeans in this way, for their better adaptability compared to other crops to the challenges of the soil and the climate.
Technological and sustainable innovations

In this evolution of soy, the technological innovations of its productive ecosystem continued to carve against all odds, with articulations between the national and the global, as well as public-private.

In this sense, one of the latest milestones in Argentine science is the HB4 technology, based on a sunflower gene that confers tolerance to drought. It is the only GMO technology in the world with this characteristic for wheat and soybean crops.

As of 2003, the national company Bioceres began to work in collaboration with a group of scientists from the Universidad Nacional del Litoral (UNL) and the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), led by Dr. Raquel Chan. Since 2020, the technology is being expanded through "Generación HB4", a regenerative and identity-preserved agriculture program that integrates good agricultural practices and technologies designed to offset carbon emissions, restore soil health, improve land use. water and provide end-to-end traceability.

For the next campaign, another paradigmatic rupture in the handling of soy is coming. Enlist technology is a new generation of weed control solutions, a problem that has grown in the last decade and causes significant losses in yields.

Leading global companies such as Corteva Agrisciences will offer a technology package, from seeds and phytosanitary products to a program of good use practices, to control, for example, drift in applications.

 Meanwhile, the German company BASF, with several decades in Argentina, continues to accompany the challenges posed by the evolution of soybeans, with fungicides, herbicides and, in seeds, with the launch of 5 new varieties this year.

And, also within the framework of soy production, FMC, one of the main global firms in agricultural science, announced this Monday that it will begin to produce Rynaxypyr, one of its main active ingredients, in Argentina.
Dynamism inside, dollars for the economy

The point is that soybeans not only provided foreign exchange, but also established the basis for a new agriculture. Inclusive, industrial, scale. The two agricultural companies listed on Wall Street are Argentine: Adecoagro and Cresud. Hand in hand with soybeans came the international expansion of the DONMARIO seed company, a leader in Brazil and with feet in the United States and 15 other countries, including China. Another company like Rosario Bioceres, which embraced the idea of ​​developing national biotechnology, is also listed in New York.

Meanwhile, on the banks of the Paraná, the crushing industry (or milling, the solvent soy processing system) was installed, which is the most powerful pole in the world in its field.

The soy complex (flours, oils and grains) is by far the main source of foreign exchange, exporting with added value most of the products and by-products of this crop.

In order for the investments of the main global operators of agricultural products (Glencore, Cargill, Dreyfus, the Chinese Cofco, Bunge) to flow along with thriving local companies such as AGD, Vicentin or the ACA cooperative, there were a couple of fundamental milestones: port deregulation and the dredging of the Paraná waterway.

If Argentina is still viable, it is because we did all this. Without a plan, without a long-term State policy. Jerking, sneaking, looking for a way to flee forward. It has been complex, winding, walking on the edge of the precipice. But we knew how to achieve it.

Today soy is the hub of a large agro-industrial complex (between grain and its by-products), which this year will enter the Argentine economy 20 billion dollars, a third of total national exports. Let the story flow. And continue.


Professor at the Faculty of Agronomy of the UBA, he was one of the main promoters of soy, along with Carlos Remussi, Juan José Valla, among a few others.

Since the mid-1950s he struggled almost alone to install what was a "botanical curiosity." In 1974, he was instrumental in bringing seeds from the United States.

Promoter of direct sowing, the soil and environment conservation system, which underpinned the jump in soybeans. Founder and first president of Aapresid.

INTA technician, audacious expander of technical and geographical borders. He evangelized with his "revolutionary ideas" of doing agriculture without removing the soil.

He is considered the father of soybeans in Argentina. He created countless varieties and was instrumental in the local adaptation of those resistant to glyphosate.

INTA technician, he promoted a national network of cultivars so that producers know with transparency the dates, groups and yields in the various regions.

Leader of DONMARIO, the seed company that is the leader in Argentina and Brazil. He installed the short maturity groups, which markedly improved yields.

One of the producers most committed to innovation and technological intensification. He from taking care of water and erosion to lower costs and increase productivity.

Nicknamed the "king of soybeans." He planted 150,000 hectares at the time of the greatest explosion of the crop. Protagonist of debates with a social perspective.

Second president of Aapresid, he balanced his deep gaze on the lot with the international positioning of soybeans and all Argentine agriculture.

From a butcher shop to a mega-planting partner organization, in his short life. President of AACREA, he built bridges with social and educational references.

Scientist who developed HB4, a drought-resistant gene for soybeans and wheat, within the framework of a global avant-garde public-private partnership.

A benchmark of the new generation that continues to break ground. He promoted Certified Agriculture (CA) to recognize and give value to sustainable production.

He has been innovating for 4 decades: at DONMARIO, at Aapresid and now also with service crops and food production for new consumers.

Automatic translation from spanish.

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