As the new year gets underway, we reflect on how far the global pulse industry has come with the former GPC president.
Last year was a difficult year for Argentina’s pulse industry. It started out with high expectations, as attractive prices saw the area seeded to dry beans expand in the early months of the year. As the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw demand for healthy, nutritious, shelf-stable pulses skyrocket, that optimism was further fueled and persisted into the planting of the country’s winter pulse crops. But dry conditions took their toll on yields, and production was disappointing across the board.
“Because of the dry conditions, exportable supplies have been less than initially anticipated,” says José María Lázara, former GPC president (2007-2011) and founder and CEO of the brokerage firm José María Lázara, S.A.
By his estimation, dry bean exports to date total 140,000 MT for alubia beans, 143,000 MT for black beans, 50,000 MT for mung beans and 45,000 MT for colored beans (cranberry beans, light red kidney beans and dark red kidney beans). By the end of the Argentina’s dry bean marketing year, he anticipates a carryout of some 20,000 MT for white beans and 15-20,000 MT for black beans; colored bean inventories, he reports, are sold out.
On the movement of Argentina’s winter pulses, José María ballparks chickpea exports at 6,000 MT since November and foresees them amounting to 40,000 MT by the end of the chickpea marketing year in October 2021.
This marks the second consecutive year of subpar pulse production for the country. In 2019/20, Argentina’s dry bean crop was marred by harvest rains.
Nonetheless, as the seeding of the 2020/21 crop approaches (Argentina’s dry beans are typically sown from February through early April), José María remains optimistic that the grower interest will be there to seed 150,000 ha. to alubia beans, 160,000 ha. to black beans, 50,000 ha. to colored beans and 45-50,000 ha. to mung beans.
In other words, despite the setbacks, Argentina’s dry bean sector continues to rise up and look forward.
As José María puts it, much has changed since he stated in the business, but: “The change has been only in one direction: growth and more growth.”
Past is prologue, and as we leave the tempestuous year of 2020 behind and begin the new year with the hopeful news of more and more COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, the GPC reached out to José María to tap into his vast experience and reflect on how far the global pulse industry has come.
GPC: Take us back to the early days of José María Lázara S.A. and how you became involved in the pulse business.
José María: I worked for a couple of Argentine dry bean exporters before I launched my own brokerage firm. José María Lázara S.A. was founded on March 10, 1980. We started out working with several products, but pulses were our mainstay, accounting for 90% of our business. Back then, Argentina’s pulse exports were limited almost entirely to just dry beans, and then only to black beans for the Latin American market and white beans for the European market.
Later, the firm expanded into other pulses, including peas, lentils and chickpeas. From there, we added other food commodities and today we work with more than 35 products from Argentina and other origins. But pulses continue to be our main business.
GPC: How has Argentina’s pulse industry changed over the course of your career?
José María: The change has been only in one direction: growth and more growth. That is thanks entirely to the private sector, and mostly to national capital, that assumed all the risk and invested over the long haul and along the entire value chain to create a pulse cluster some 2,000 km from the ports. There was investment in modern technology from seeding to processing and, over the years, new bean classes and other pulses were incorporated, transforming the pulse sector into one of Argentina’s major regional economies and earning the country a worldwide reputation as a supplier of high-quality pulses.
GPC: We’ve heard that domestic pulse consumption has been slowly increasing in Argentina. What can you tell us about this trend?
José María: This has been and will no doubt continue to be a great effort led by CLERA (Argentina’s Chamber of Pulses). For a leader in the pulse trade, like Argentina, it is fundamental to have an internal market to support an increase in production. Yet until recently, pulse consumption in Argentina was minimal, about 250 grams per person compared to 15 to 20 kilograms per person in other Latin American countries like Brazil and Mexico. This despite the fact that much of the Argentine population is descended from countries where large quantities of pulses are consumed, like Spain and Italy.
Our efforts in this regard are starting to bear fruit. Domestic pulse consumption has grown from 250 grams to 800 grams and counting. We expect even better results in the short- and medium-term as we continue to inform people and raise awareness of the benefits of pulse consumption.
GPC: What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for Argentina’s pulse sector today?
José María: In my personal opinion, the biggest challenge for our sector is the country’s economic stability. We don’t have stability and that limits predictability, which is essential in any business plan. In fact, we are far from it, with annual inflation of nearly 50% and a devaluation rate that is unknown and uncertain, all of which prevents the export sector from planning properly.
Despite this and the recurring economic and financial crises that Argentina regularly experiences, the pulse sector has grown season after season. That’s a testament to the hard work and commitment of all of the sector’s actors, from the smallest grower to the largest exporter.
GPC: You served as GPC president from 2007 to 2011. How did you first become involved with the organization?
José María: It was when the GPC was known as CICILS, back in the ’80s. At the time I was one of the few members who wasn’t European or North American. Years later I was named Vice President and then, in 2001 in Vancouver, I was elected Executive Vice President and had the honor of organizing the unforgettable CICILS convention in Bariloche, Argentina, in 2002.
Afterwards, like you said, I was elected CICILS President at the Marseille convention in 2007 and then re-elected two years later in Antalya, Turkey. I accepted the four-year mandate for several reasons, but the main one was to try to transform CICILS from what was almost a private club into a true international organization, where all the actors from all the continents had a leading role to play, no matter their nationality or origin. I wanted everyone to be more than passive members, to execute policies and transform CICILS into a global organization.
With that goal in mind, one of the first things I did was propose changes to the bylaws. These changes limited the number of executive committee members from any one country to two, established that a president could only be elected to one two-year term with only one re-election to a second two-year term possible, moved CICILS headquarters from Paris to Dubai in order to move the organization closer to and strengthen the connection with the key pulse origins and destinations, and of course improved the organization’s finances to such a degree that attendance at our conventions grew from 300 to 900 delegates. For these reasons, as well as others, I decided to accept the presidency of CICILS.
And it was perhaps the greatest privilege of all to pass on the charge, four years later, to my unforgettable friend, Hakan Bahceci. I couldn’t have left it in better hands.
GPC: How is the global pulse trade different today from when you were GPC president?
José María: Every new administration has to adapt to the new realities of the market and to the challenges of the international geopolitics of the day in order to improve conditions for our sector. The International Year of Pulses, World Pulses Day and many more initiatives promoted and developed by the GPC have pushed the pulse sector to the vanguard of international food sales. No doubt new challenges will emerge, and our industry will rise to the occasion.
GPC: How do you plan to celebrate World Pulses Day 2021?
José María: Because of strict COVID-19 restrictions, in-person meetings are practically prohibited in Argentina. Instead, CLERA is organizing a major virtual conference with the participation not only of our members but also government officials and trade journalists in order to reinforce the promotion and consumption of dry pulses.
GPC: We are at the beginning of a new year. What are your hopes and wishes for 2021?
José María: In the future as well as in the present, I would like to see the GPC continuing to take effective action in the face of the biggest challenges of our era, drawing strength from the diversity of our membership and the balanced representation from all the continents in our executive committee. In that way it may speak with one, powerful, authoritative voice in the name of our industry at the global level.