April 14, 2024

‘Vegetarianism is still seen as a bit odd’: so why is Argentina’s appetite for beef on the wane? | Global development

The billboard in Buenos Aires shows a piglet standing forlornly by a butcher’s fridge. “Dónde están mis amigos?” – “where are my friends?” – it reads. Such adverts have sprung up around Argentina’s capital as part of a concerted campaign by the animal rights groups Animal Save Movement and Voicot, an Argentinian organisation, to promote vegan diets.

But in Argentina, eating meat – and in particular a steak – prepared on the asado, or barbecue, is a cherished national tradition. The typical Argentinian restaurant is a parillaa steakhouse that can serve a bewildering variety of grilled meat, with some menus offering beef 30 different ways.

A billboard promoting a vegan diet in Buenos Aires reads: ‘Where are my friends?’ Photograph: Sam Meadows/the Guardian

Between 1914 and 2021, the average annual figure for beef consumption in Argentina was 73.4kg (162lb) per person. This figure takes in the peak year for beef consumption, 1956, when the average Argentinian ate an astounding 100.8kg of beef, as well as the lowest year, 1920, when the figure was still a hefty 46.9kg.

Unsurprisingly, given these figures, beef remains big business in Argentina. The country’s vast pampas grasslands are famous for the herds reared there. The country boasts 53 million cattle – a figure that has remained stable for 50 years – in a country of only 45 million people. Exports of beef and derivatives accounted for £2.4bn in 2020, making Argentina the world’s fifth highest exporter.

However, a quiet revolution is under way. Consumption of beef has been falling in Argentina since the 1970s, and the decline has recently accelerated. Between 2018 and 2021, the average amount of beef eaten annually slipped from 57.8kg to 47.8kg per person – the lowest since the 1920s. This nevertheless represents much higher consumption than the 18kg a year eaten by the average Briton or 26kg in the US.

This change in the Argentinian diet is partly down to a rise in the number of vegetarians and the increasing popularity of other meats such as chicken, but also because of harsher economic conditions as Argentina battles with the highest inflation in South America. Government campaigns warning of the health risks of red and fatty meats may also have played a role.

Malena Blanco, who lives near Mar del Plata, a seaside city about 250 miles from the capital, became vegetarian when she was 11 and turned vegan in her 20s, motivated by a TV documentary about meat production.

“The documentary featured a slaughterhouse, and as I was eating a piece of meat, I realised what I was consuming was an animal – and I loved animals,” says Blanco, who co-founded Voicot, the organisation behind the billboards, with Fede Callegari, in 2013.

A man shops for meat at Buenos Aires’ Central Market. The cost of beef has risen sharply in the past year, which has also contributed to the fall in consumption. Photograph: Tomás Cuesta/Getty Images

Blanco, 44, is one of the 12% of Argentinians who are vegetarian or vegan, according to a 2022 survey by nutritionists in Buenos Aires province – an increase of three percentage points on the year before.

She believes there are several reasons for this growing movement in Argentina. “Globally, there’s an understanding that animal exploitation doesn’t have to do only with the killing and suffering of other animals but also with climate change,” she says.

“Most of the soya harvested worldwide is destined to feed livestock. To do that, millions of hectares of forest are cut down.”

Things have changed hugely for vegetarians in the past decade, says Callegari. “I remember travelling back to Argentina with vegan cheese in my bag,” he says. “There was one vegetarian restaurant [in Buenos Aires].”

Both faced scepticism from friends and family when they made the switch. “There was some initial resistance from my family, but they soon understood it was a done deal,” Blanco says. “Then there was the whole process with family and friends during the asado.”

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Some of those close to her felt she was “exposing” them for not making a similar ethical choice. “Then come the jokes about animals, jokes about not eating animals,” she recalls. “There wasn’t social media. I felt completely alone and didn’t know anyone vegetarian.”

But things are changing, with scores of vegetarian restaurants springing up across Buenos Aires. Restaurants such as Marti and Buenos Aires Verde serve entirely vegetarian menus, while even the city’s famous steakhouses now usually have a few non-meat options.

One of these new vegetarian restaurants – Chuí, a trendy bar below railway arches in a former welding workshop – has recently been added to the Michelin Guide. Perhaps in a sign of how vegetarianism continues to be viewed in Argentina, when it opened, the owners decided not to advertise the lack of meat on the menu.

Nicolas Kasakoff, the vegetarian co-owner of Chuí, says: “If we launched as a vegetarian restaurant, then maybe some people would just not come.

“Usually [Argentinians] associate veganism and vegetarianism with health,” he says. “We wanted to get away from that. We wanted to promote expressive cooking, and we wanted people not to feel the absence of meat.”

He adds: “Across Latin America, [vegetarianism] is still seen as a bit odd. But since we opened, another four or five vegetarian restaurants have opened. It’s a new wave.”

When the vegetarian bar Chuí opened in Buenos Aires, the owners decided not to advertise the lack of meat on the menu. Photograph: Courtesy of Chuí

The growing popularity of vegetarianism does not tell the whole story. As beef consumption has fallen, consumption of other meats – such as chicken and pork – has nearly trebled. Beef prices have been a significant driver of this. According to the IPCVA, the meat producers’ trade body, the cost of the popular bife ancho cut more than quadrupled in a year, from about 1,000 pesos (95p) in December 2022 to more than 4,500.

Chuí’s owners cited the lack of meat as the reason why their menu prices have not risen as much as those of other restaurants.

Miguel Schiariti, president of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce of Meats, denies that vegetarianism explains the eclipse of beef and puts it down to two reasons: the economy and gradual changes in eating habits.

He also says Argentinina’s grass-fed cattle have less environmental impact, claiming: “Our form of production gives a positive balance to carbon emissions.”

But according to Fundación Vida Silvestre, an environmental organisation, beef production is Argentina’s second-highest source of greenhouse gases, amounting to 22% of emissions, and is linked to deforestation in northern Argentina.

Whatever is behind the slump, Argentinians do not seem ready to give up meat just yet. But life is undeniably getting easier for vegetarians in the world’s most meat-loving country.