Worrying shortage risk

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Roadblocks manned by hundreds of truckers on Thursday in Argentina's heartland threatened to revive food shortages as a deadlock dragged on between protesting farmers and government.

Farmers are staging their third strike in nearly three months over higher export taxes on the country's top crop, soybeans. They are withholding grains from market through Sunday, and some truckers frustrated with the halt to commerce have blocked highways to press for a solution.

Fewer products are arriving at the Buenos Aires Central Market, where most of the city's fruits and vegetables are sold.

"There's been a small drop, about 70 percent of goods are arriving," a source at the wholesale market said on condition of anonymity. A butchers' representative in Buenos Aires said beef supplies were running short.

Farmers blocked highways during their first, wide-scale strike in March, sparking shortages of such staples as beef and dairy products on supermarket shelves. They have since changed tactics to avoid alienating city dwellers.

"The situation has grown complicated for truckers. Government should pay more attention. This is the result of failing solved farm problem," Eduardo Buzzi, president of Argentine Agrarian Federation, told reporters.

Television images showed hundreds of trucks parked on rural highways, and dairy sector leaders warned that this new twist to farm conflict could spoil millions of liters of milk.

"This strike on highways blocks all economic activity and once again threatens to cause shortages and higher prices. This has become a strike against Argentine people," Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo told local radio.

The minister later told a news conference that government would not cede ground on grains export taxes, but was willing to discuss future policy once the strike ended.

President Cristina Fernandez took an oblique dig at striking farmers on Thursday, after days of keeping silent.

"I ask myself, what worker, store owner or business executive can afford to stop working for 90 days? Only those who've accumulated a great deal of wealth," Fernandez said in a speech.

The conflict has become more polarized, with some activists demonstrating against the farm sector, throwing eggs against the offices of a multinational grains company on Thursday. Other groups have backed the farmers.

"Our problems cannot be resolved in the streets, which is why we ask that the government please call for a transparent and constructive dialogue urgently, and that the protesters change their strategies," Argentina's top Roman Catholic bishops said in a statement read aloud on live television.

Farmers first went on strike after the government announced a new sliding-scale export tax system for grains and oilseeds, which raised levies on soy and sunseed products.

The government says the tax hike helps curb inflation while protecting consumers. Farmers call the rates confiscatory.

The conflict has caused a former economy minister to resign and has hammered President Fernandez's approval ratings just six months after she took office.

It also has pressured the local currency, forcing central bank to sell its foreign reserves to sustain the peso.

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