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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Argentine non-meat eaters gain ground in a land dominated by beef

With increasing inflation and poverty coupled with greater awareness of animal rights, Argentines are giving up centuries-old eating habits for vegetarian and vegan diets.

(CN) — A culinary struggle is underway between the growing vegetarian and vegan community and the traditional meat-eating majority of Argentina, a country famed for its grass-fed beef that stretches back to colonial times.

Argentines eat the most meat in all of South America, around 109.38kg per person per year, and have the third biggest appetite in the world behind only Australians (121.6kg) and Americans (124.1kg).

Meat, and particularly beef, has shaped the destiny of Argentina since the Spanish conquistadors herded cattle on ships and brought them over to South America.

The boundless grassy plains of the Pampas, with its fertile soil and climate, fed the rapidly multiplying cattle as well as the agricultural export-driven growth of Argentina’s economy.

Roaming gaucho cowboys, long-time outcasts of Argentine history that were resurrected as symbols of national identity, would flame wooden fires and slow-roast cuts of beef for an asado — a type of barbeque that remains a sacred social event and source of national pride.

The advent of globalization brought expanding export markets for the country’s growing meat production, cultivating a quality reputation while propelling a minority of landowners into areas of extreme wealth and political importance.

“In Argentina, meat consumption, mainly beef, is strongly rooted in the national food culture, the traditional production of the country and one of its flagship products in foreign markets,” according to a regional board of trade report

The intensity of beef consumption across Argentina is so high that despite the waning appetite during the last few years, the country remains the global leader.

“With a severe economic crisis due to the pandemic, and with a drop in income and job losses, beef consumption is the lowest in the history of the country,” the report added, “around 25% less than what was consumed at the beginning of the 2000s and 40% less than 50 years ago. Yet despite this decrease, Argentina continues to hold first position in terms of world beef consumption per capita. In 2021, Argentines ate 47.5kg of beef, followed by Uruguay (45kg) and the U.S. (38kg).”

While the broad trajectory of beef consumption has been steadily decreasing for decades, the last two economic crises (1998-2002 and 2018-) have trigged sharper falls.

According to data by the Institute for the Promotion of Beef, the yearly average plate of beef lightened by 7.9kg between 1999 and 2002 and 9kg between 2018 and 2021 as growing poverty, unemployment and inflation eat into people’s savings. 

In January, yearly inflation hit 50.7% with some of the hardest hit products being wine (114.3%), bread (76.5%) and meat (70%).

Attempts to tame the price of beef have been unsuccessful. Last year the government placed a temporary ban on beef exports — hoping to boost domestic supply and stabilize local prices. Last month it extended an export ban on several cuts of beef until the end of 2023.

Alongside the slowdown in meat consumption is the acceleration of vegetarianism and veganism.

There are no official figures on the numbers. One survey by an association of nutritionists puts the number of vegetarians and vegans in Argentina at 12%. Another survey by the Institute for the Promotion of Beef counts 5% while recognizing that 29% of the population are now flexitarian — those that consciously eat less meat.

This would make Argentina the second-largest non-meat eating country in South America after Brazil, which is going through similar culinary shifts away from meat as 14% of Brazilians now claim to be vegetarian.

A strong indicator of the rise of non-meat eaters is the participation in Veganuary, the yearly international challenge that encourages people to go vegan for January.

Last month, 629,000 people took part in the challenge, according to the non-profit. Among the top ten countries that participated, five of them were in Latin America — Mexico had the highest levels of participation, followed by Argentina, then Colombia, Chile and Brazil.

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“I’d always liked animals but had no idea of the mistreatment that comes with consuming animal products,” said Fernanda González, a vegan of 6 years who lives in Buenos Aires, “until one day I saw on social media a 5-minute video, and there I understood that I no longer wanted to be part of that and decided that same day to give up meat.”

It took 6 months of transition to be vegan, she said, “because at that time it was something very new; it wasn’t common and there was not much information like there is now.”

González’s change of diet had broader effects on those around her. “My boyfriend stopped eating meat months after we met as well as his mum and sister, and he became a vegan one year after meeting me,” she said. “My mum has been a vegetarian since I became vegan, and my brother 4 years ago. Plus, practically all of my friends have become vegetarians within these last 6 years that I’ve been a vegan.”

Gonzalez is part of the growing veganism movement emerging in Argentina. “More and more people are waking up and realizing that meat consumption cannot be sustained,” she said, “both in terms of the consumption of resources as well as for the mistreatment it entails — and also for their own health.”

For some, animal rights extend beyond plates and products and moves into activism, evidenced by city streets being plastered with provocative posters and defiant slogans.

“We are an artistic movement that fights for animal liberation and our main tool is communication,” said Malena Blanco, co-founder of Voicot. “We make posters, do public communication and do research to tell stories and show people what happens inside slaughterhouses. It seems to me that the most dangerous weapon we have is the truth.”

Through their research, communication and social media posts, they hope to “generate a state of reflection, of questioning,” Blanco added, “to show people what happens in Argentina inside slaughterhouses because it’s something that is hidden from us and that advertising disguises.”

Voicot has experienced accelerated growth in the last few years.

“I think because something is starting to happen — with our bodies and with our increasing knowledge of climate change,” Blanco said. “A tangible feeling that something’s not right. This also opens the door to start questioning, and from there, to start changing consumption habits.”

Blanco distinguishes the growing awareness of animal rights and vegan diets at the society level from the level of the state, which functions in a system that profits from the meat industry. And that while it recognizes a shift in society by adapting its own discourse, Blanco remains vigilent about its intentions.

At the technological level, advancements in bioengineering have led to the development of cultured meat, making possible at some point in the future the substitution of factory-farmed meat for lab-grown meat.

Built on decades of research and investment, researchers made the world’s first lab-grown beef in 2013, breaking the industry’s first milestone. The process involves removing cells from a live animal and harvesting it in a laboratory.

The aim is to produce meat without killing animals as well as to create a more sustainable and ethical food system. An aim shared by the Argentine startup B.I.F.E., a division of the bioengineering company Laboratorios Craveri, which developed its own lab-grown meat in July 2021 — the first in Latin America.

“Our short-term goal is to overcome one of the 3 limiting factors of cultured meat and that is scalability,” said Juan Craveri, the company’s president and founder of B.I.F.E. “Currently, the bioreactors available for bioengineering are used for tissue culture on a small scale and when moving to the food industry, the scale is exponential. Scale is also necessary to lower the value and reach a competitive price.”

The two other factors are the regulatory framework and the cultural change in consumption, which Craveri believes to be taking place.

“It is difficult to estimate a percentage of the market to be captured once our product is launched,” said Craveri, “but what is clear to us is that both models will coexist: traditional and cultured meat.”

Craveri expects that lab-grown meat will more likely give vegetarians something to chew on rather than vegans. “In any case, since there is no animal suffering when lab-meat is grown, it is likely that some will be tempted to try it. We also understand that there is a potential market in flexitarians, a group that has been growing lately.”

Historically a carnivorous country, Argentina has shown its growing appetite for a fusion of tradition and modernity — not only in what it puts on its plate but the way it thinks about itself.

“We’ve started to question who we are in this world,” said Blanco. “If we want a fairer world and if we want a world without violence, then are we creating this world with our actions? I think that is the question: who are we and who do we want to be?”

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Categories / Consumers, Health, International, Technology

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