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Argentina and the Problem of Feeding the Global Demand for Beef
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The Tradition Issue — Jan. 29, 2021

Argentina and the Problem of Feeding the Global Demand for Beef

Confronted with effects of the climate crisis, Argentina grapples with its deep history as a global beef producer.

This story can also be found in our Winter 2021 issue of Life & Thyme Post, our limited edition newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Subscribe

The rhythms of nineties cumbia queen Gilda’s love ballad “No Me Arrepiento de Este Amor” pulse over the stereo system, the melodic beats of bongo and cowbell bounce completely in tune with the sound of tires vibrating atop a crackly dirt road. We’ve just pulled off the highway into Mercedes, a pocket-sized town in Buenos Aires’ vast, flat countryside. Maybe it was the delirium of a four-hour detour on my one hundred-kilometer journey, but I feel like I’m arriving in another era. 

Across the football pitch and just past an abandoned train station, on the porch of the neighborhood general store, sits a group of elderly men playing dominoes between glasses of wine with soda water and ice. In the middle of the road, a pack of scrappy dogs snaps out of their sunbathing session and bite at my passenger door, and two men on horseback with wide-brimmed sombreros on their heads and yerba mate gourds in their hands look at the taxi cab curiously.

“Quite the trip you had today,” Fernanda Tramontani quietly says as she pulls the front gate open. “Bienvenidos.” 

Tramontani is the owner of Granja Planto, a small farm that specializes in leafy greens and root vegetables. She purchased the twenty-hectare property five years ago with her husband Carlos Abriola and spent the subsequent two years tilling the soil by hand to make the farm workable. Today, they use just three hectares, but a local demand for certified organic produce has them busily plowing two new plots for the upcoming season. 

Tending to crops by hand, learning to distinguish diseased plants from helpful weeds, and understanding the intricacies of rotating crops is new territory for Tramontani, who studied fine arts, and Abriola, a musician. Having lived most of their lives in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, they never intended to build a commercial farm. The growing family just wanted a break from the city’s chaos. Once she noticed the difference between vegetables grown in her garden and those she purchased from the store, Tramontani saw an opportunity and a responsibility to feed her local community. 

“We have always wanted to sell as close to home as possible,” Tramontani explains. “We deliver everything the day it’s harvested. And even though the business has grown, we still know a lot of our customers personally. Many have come out to the farm. People come and learn about where their food comes from.” 

Although unintentional, Granja Planto’s small-scale, organic philosophy is an anomaly in Argentine farm culture. The young family farm is unique; it has existed outside of an agrarian construction that has written the history of the country—a socioeconomic construction that views land as capital rather than sustenance. It’s a hegemonic agribusiness system that fuels itself with nearly half a millenia worth of economic advancement at the cost of ecological wealth, Indigenous societies, and the health and wellbeing of the country’s rural population. It’s a system that, when challenged, strikes back with vengeance.

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Beginning with the first Spanish settlements in the Rio de la Plata in the sixteenth century, livestock production has been integral to the social and economic construction of the colony and then the nation-state. Grazing land for cattle was the motor for expanding the frontier against the Indigenous Querandí, who frequently attacked cattle in order to defend natural resources the animal’s presence devastated, as well as to strategically sever the settlers from an important food source. 

This back and forth persisted for nearly two centuries across the country, as colonists absorbed land and Native populations attacked cattle in retaliation. Independence from the Spanish Crown in the nineteenth century brought a tidal shift in political ideology. In order to claim land in a continent that was quickly drawing national lines, the new Argentine government led a violent assimilation, or extermination, campaign known as the Conquest of the Desert against Indigenous populations. The decade-long military campaign murdered, enslaved or pushed Native peoples into settlements along the country’s periphery. 

Again, agriculture was the catalyst, with the concept of farming synonymous with economic advancement in an industrializing world. 

“The role of the land and Argentina’s position as the ‘world’s silo’ became part of national identity building,” explains Cecilia Gárgano, a historian who specializes in Argentine agriculture. “It began with what was called the ‘desert campaigns,’ which was actually the invasion of territory that belonged to Indigenous communities. The word ‘desert,’ which makes one think about empty spaces, is used to distract from the consequences that come with intensive agricultural production and is a symbolic construction that persists today.”

Some historians have since redefined the Conquista del Desierto as a systematic genocide, but Argentina’s grand entrance to the global economy that followed is worshipped with nostalgia. The country’s Golden Age, a period of sustained decades-long economic prowess that cradled the turn of the twentieth century, was centered largely around its role as the industrializing world’s producer of food and raw materials. 

“Argentina became an important leather exporter. Beef was a sort of byproduct that was eaten locally. It was accessible even to the country’s poor,” says Ezequiel Arrieta, a doctor who investigates the relationship between diet and sustainability. “Beef transformed into a basic food staple, and today those cultural roots around beef are very deeply rooted.”

The production of cattle and grains and the mysticism that enshrined the rural gaucho became symbols of patrimony and patriotism that persist today. The country is the second largest consumer of beef, with an annual consumption of 120 pounds per capita. And despite most beef being consumed domestically, the country ranks as the world’s fifth largest exporter, valued at $3 billion. 

Beef is everything. It encapsulates political power, social status, and economic standing. It is both a social equalizer and a stark reminder of class. Common complaints about inflation and poverty are often measured by a person’s inability to buy carne, which translates to “meat,” but is used colloquially to exclusively refer to beef. 

“Beef brings people together,” Arrieta continues. “The asado is the excuse to get together with your friends and family, and the grill is almost completely filled with beef.”

Smoking grills filled with chorizos, a mix of beef and pork, can always be found on the sidelines of a protest, and exclusive pasture-fed beef is what made Don Julio, a steakhouse that can easily set a local diner back a quarter of the national minimum wage, the fourth best in Latin America according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants by Pellegrino

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Although the cultural and culinary importance around beef has changed little over the course of Argentina’s history, drastic changes in agricultural processes and technology to feed the world’s growing demand for livestock have wreaked environmental and socioeconomic destruction over the last fifty years. 

By the mid-twentieth century, Argentina had exited its Golden Age and mutated from a model student of early capitalism into a nation of the developing world. Agriculture forever remained its prayer for economic advancement and a reintegration into the good ole days of being a leader of the developed world. Every government has had to reckon with this economic handicap, either working in tandem or resigned to cooperate with the maintenance of a system that constantly has to produce more through state-sponsored violence or inequitable policymaking. 

The 1960s and seventies were a volatile time across the continent with foreign-backed dictators planted across the entire region. In Argentina, authoritarianism meant a turning point in the agrarian model. Up until then, large-scale plantations and small- and medium-sized family farms were both integral parts of Argentine foodways. Rural leaders, union organizers, and student activists fighting for agrarian and labor reforms became enemies of the state. Many were pushed into exile or disappeared by a military junta that between 1976 and 1983 disappeared 30,000 people and displaced countless others considered dissidents.

Dominant sectors of agrarian society supported the dismantlement of agriculture’s social fabrics as they stood to benefit from a socioeconomic and political power grab. Over time, the role of the state was weakened, privatization intensified, and controls over beef and grain production and the regulatory organizations that managed them were virtually sterilized. 

The new framework built with bricks made of violence and imperialism paved the way for radical changes. The conservative neoliberalism that defined the 1990s introduced the country’s first transgenic seed as well as feedlots, where now roughly 70% of cattle spend some portion of their lives. Although much of the country’s cattle is eaten domestically, Argentina’s transgenic grains are used to feed livestock all over the world. 

“Transgenic soy reconfigurated the entire agrarian structure and defined who would become the system’s winners and losers,” explains Maristella Svampa, an investigator and one of the foremost voices on the socio-ecological crisis and the social movements that have grown out of it across Latin America. “The idea was to create an exit strategy for an agricultural sector in crisis. It’s possible that the ecological, social and public health impacts of that new system were unknown. Today, you can’t feign ignorance. There are fifteen million people across the country that are affected by fumigating.”

The “winners” were able to consolidate their market share. In the last two decades, 32% of farm businesses have disappeared with small family farms being disproportionately affected. According to a 2019 census, 36% of farmland is owned by the top 1% of producers, whereas small family farms that represent 55% of the number of farm businesses only own 2% of the land. Today, nearly 10% of the national GDP and 60% of export earnings are tied to the agriculture sector, which pumps dollars into an economy with chronic sovereign debt issues. 

Argentina cannot begin to meaningfully work toward a sustainable agrarian model if the rest of the world fails to question its consumption of an unsustainable one.

Transgenics didn’t just cement power structures; it completely rearranged the geography of Argentine agriculture. Traditionally, cattle was raised on the plains and grasslands of central Argentina, but the introduction of genetically modified grains created a strange paradox: grain produced to feed livestock displaced the actual livestock. Over time, the cattle frontier pushed into the densely forested areas of the Gran Chaco, South America’s second largest forest, which today is only 30% of what it was one hundred years ago. 

“Our problem isn’t necessarily the CO2 emissions associated with beef, but how we use land,” explains Arrieta. “Historically, people thought that land was an infinite resource; there was no concept of scarcity, and we are seeing that ideology is not true. We burn land and deforest entire ecosystems with valuable biodiversity to feed cattle. There are areas all over the country that are experiencing floods because we have destroyed areas that once acted as natural sponges. That is the problem that we really have to address.”

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The history of Argentina’s role as an agricultural producer and its ever more visible impacts on the climate crisis is beginning to command a new national dialogue that grows in urgency as institutions double down on old politics. During the pandemic, the government introduced a plan to open large factory farms with pigs for export to China, approved the world’s first transgenic wheat, and record fires and floods ravaged the entire country. 

“The world needs to recognize two things. First, the climate crisis is the strongest catalyst of social injustice; you cannot solve one without addressing the other. Second, the problems of the climate crisis in the global south are not the same as in the global north,” says Eyal Weintraub, one of the founding members of Jóvenes por el Clima, or Youth for Climate, a national organization connected to Fridays for Future. 

Jóvenes por el Clima define themselves as a Latin American movement built for the people. Although their fight is against the climate crisis, the work is increasingly intersectional, representative of a social justice movement unique to the global south that sees the impacts of environmental degradation touch every part of society.

“The North needs to work on curbing their emissions; we have to work to protect our communal natural resources,” continues Weintraub. “The jungles, forests and wetlands of South America are the globe’s absorbers of CO2 emissions. The world expects us to protect that nature; the G7 expects this. But those same countries don’t provide anything meaningful in the way of relief of foreign debt that would be the easiest road to changing an agricultural export model that helps us pay our debt but destroys our natural world.”

Weintraub points out the enduring paradox. The dependence on agriculture to be the nation’s savior is simply the reinforcement of the colonialist and imperialist foundations that it was built on and continues to be vulnerable to. Although the actors of colonialism have changed, the global imperialist systems of power concentration and abuse of natural resources are all the same. Locally, the societal and cultural construct that deifies beef and agriculture makes the entire system difficult to question, even as the evidence mounts in ever more visible ways. 

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Back at Granja Planto, Tramontani’s brother Guillermo and I pull beets, chard and kale leaves that taste like wasabi and salt straight from the ground. He points out the ways in which the lines of vegetables are protected by weeds—which they used to rip out from the base, until they learned that they attract good insects and improve soil quality. “We are so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that sustains us,” he tells me. “It’s time that we reconnect and learn from the land again.”

It is time for us to learn from the land. Like the coexistence of the weeds and the vegetables, Argentina won’t solve its climate crisis in the absence of collaboration. It’s time to reach toward a model that values the collective rather than the hegemonic structures of individualism. Argentina cannot begin to meaningfully work toward a sustainable agrarian model if the rest of the world fails to question its consumption of an unsustainable one. Only when the global consciousness understands our interconnectedness will local projects begin to take root and bear fruit.

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