(Adds statements from officials in talks)
By Marcelo Teixeira and Reese Ewing
SAO PAULO, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Truckers who blocked roads in 10 Brazilian states in an eighth day of protests struggled to find a solution in talks with the government on Wednesday to end a strike that has disrupted food and fuel supplies.
Agriculture Minister Katia Abreu said after a meeting with truckers in Brasilia on Wednesday afternoon that she was confident both sides would reach agreement.
“(The protesters) are flexible and want to resolve the problem,” Abreu said, but she added the government would not give in to on the truckers’ main demands: lower diesel prices and fixed freight rates.
Truckers and transport companies failed to reach an agreement over freight rates by the end of the government-led talks Wednesday evening, said Blairo Maggi, a prominent senator from the leading soy state, Mato Grosso, where the protests began on Feb. 18.
But government officials may resume talks with the truckers on Thursday.
“The problem is the trucker’s wallet: if (the government) doesn’t lower the price of diesel, then raise freight rates,” Diumar Bueno, president of the independent truckers association, who participated in the meetings.
The widespread protests come as President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity has slumped to an all-time low because of an economic downturn and a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras.
The truckers’ strike has added to Brazil’s economic malaise, slowing the delivery of parts and raw materials to factories while also forcing farmers to idle harvesters for lack of diesel.
Meanwhile, police clashed with protesters, arresting truckers. Video on Facebook and local media sites showed police in heavy riot gear shooting tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades into blockades of trucks parked along the side of major highways.
Independent truckers and trucking companies are demanding lower diesel and toll prices, changes to new regulations on drivers’ downtime during long hauls and better road conditions.
Federal highway police said the protests had spread from a few towns in Brazil’s top soybean state of Mato Grosso last week to 99 blockages across 10 of Brazil’s 26 states by Wednesday.
With diesel shortages along the soy belt, harvest of a record crop has been put on hold in some regions.
“There’s a lot of concern from buyers (of soybeans), especially the Chinese,” said a local trader working for a large multinational commodities company.
Dairy farmers are pouring milk down drains, and fruit and vegetables are rotting in the south. Lines are growing outside filling stations in areas short on fuel, and distributors have warned of potential jet fuel shortages at major airports.
Soybeans stocks at Paranagua, Brazil’s main grain port, could run out in as little as four days without fresh deliveries by truck, port spokesman Ceres Battistelli said, as the country entered the peak of the soy harvest. Brazil transports 70 percent of its grain to port by truck.
“Most of our warehouses in Goias and Minas (Gerais) states were affected and are not receiving soy or corn,” said Hugo Okumoto, who oversees delivery of grains for Louis Dreyfus. (Additional reporting by Asher Levine, Roberto Samora, Gustavo Bonato, Leonardo Goy and Paulo Whitaker; Editing by Alison Williams, W Simon and Steve Orlofsky)