Against all odds and sensationalist headlines

It’s been just a week since I wrote my last column. But it feels much longer. Although all days seem the same when we forcefully work from home, so many things have happened and so many battles have been fought – most of them on our social media timelines – that a week feels like a month.

Last week, the coronavirus pandemic, of course, remained as the number one trending topic here in Brazil, especially because our President, Jair Bolsonaro, has questioned the lockdown. For those who work in agriculture, like me, it was also an intense period of work and mismatch between reality and some news headlines.

Fake news x biased and lazy journalism
Although I have worked as a market analyst for most of my life, I am also a journalist. And, as such, I often find myself thinking about how the fake news phenomenon affects everybody’s lives. But there is one thing that I consider even worse than fake news. It’s lazy and biased journalism.

Most fake news are so absurd that it is not that hard to realize that they are… fake. The problem, to me, happens when a real fact is pictured by news outlets without context, without fact-checking and without listening to everybody who is involved in the dynamics of that fact. Add that to the craving for clicks and likes, plus a pinch (or a full spoon) of political bias, and the damage is done.

Potential disruptions
All that happened in Brazil last week. As some mayors and governors issued decrees that could potentially halt soybean transportation, crush and exports, headlines based solely on the decree available on the Internet and/or on a quick interview with some obscure mayor flooded news services and social media.

The decrees are real and dangerous to Brazilian agricultural exports – a solid rock that has kept us afloat even during our worst economic crises. They had to be reported, no doubt. Everything has to be reported – the good, the bad and the ugly. But, without context, those headlines just created noise and confusion, as if things were falling apart here in “South America”.

Brazil is Brazil, not South America
First of all, there is no such thing as “South American agriculture”. I understand that, for a foreigner, it is easier to think of us as a single mass of land and people. Not by chance, my column here is called “South American Update”, although I write about Brazil most of the time. But, for better and for worse, Brazil is Brazil, Argentina is Argentina and so on.

It would be good too if news outlets could take the time to ask some questions to people who are really involved with agriculture. Are crushing facilities working? At what capacity? Are logistics companies working? At what capacity? How’s the loading activity at the several ports we have here?

Are farmers reducing their selling pace now because of the pandemic or because they’ve already sold too much for this time of the year? Can a municipal decree revoke federal laws that classify agriculture and food transportation and exports as essential? No, a municipal decree cannot do that. And, by the way, Brazilian farmers sold mountains of soybeans last week, for delivery in 2020 and in 2021, as prices soared to record levels in Brazilian reais. Plus, the truck movement at the port of Paranaguá established a new record.

And many news outlets have taken the time to ask those questions to several good sources – but only after the first sensationalist headlines flew around the world. Only after people like me and my work colleagues, who deal with clients and their fears, checked what was really going on with farmers, logistics operators, trading companies and ports in every producing state of the country.

Harvest and exports
Brazil has a bumper soybean crop, which was 76% harvested by Mar 26 (according to AgRural data), and is shipping those soybeans. As I wrote here before, we had a vessel jam in our ports due to a delayed harvest, excessive rainfall in February and problems related to the coronavirus outbreak and management in China. But shipments have picked up and March is likely to end with a new export record for the month, around or even above 9 million metric tons.

We have to keep monitoring though, since things can change fast because of the pandemic. Right now, while I write (Saturday, Mar 28), Brazil is working hard to ship soybeans as soon as possible and meet importers’ needs, especially China’s.

Same window
Brazilian soybean exports normally peak in April and May – the same window when Covid-19 is likely to reach its worst here. Measures have been taken to keep essential sectors working and to protect workers who are outside fighting the good fight, such as farmers, truckers, doctors and so many others. But let’s not be naïve or chauvinist. Disruptions are likely, depending on how the pandemic evolves. And I will be here, trying to contribute to the discussion.

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