In an Argentina Independent exclusive, Soledad Barruti shares the introduction from her book ‘Malcomidos: How the Argentine food industry is killing us’. Translated by Kristie Robinson.
Our idea of food is packed with stereotypes and contradictions: in Argentina we have the best meat, the best land, the four climates which enable us to grow almost everything, the myth of grandmothers who are experts in delicious recipes – and at the same time an extraordinary number of McDonald’s stores, a record consumption of Coca Cola, an over-obsession with Activia yoghurts, and – although we almost don’t eat fish – hundreds of sushi joints which sprung up overnight. We have succumbed to the imperium of ‘light’, whilst we eat ever-increasing numbers of crackers and biscuits, and we have the highest number of obese children in all of Latin America. We proudly speak of the campo – modern, super high-tech, with levels of soy production never seen before – and in being leaders in food exports. But at the same time we pay a small fortune whenever we go to the supermarket and we are ignorant to the fact that at a ruthless speed landscapes, productions, and ways of life (that our children would still draw if asked to draw the countryside) are ceasing to exist.
We find ourselves in this critical place. Food has become a subject, an industry, a conflict, and a way of life.
At its most cosmopolitan, Argentina has discerning diners who speak of food in foodie terms, buy books with exotic recipes, and write like restaurant critics about this favourite spots on internet forums. Who now spend their Sundays going to organic markets, natural fairs, and massive events where food is the only subject.
The masses are accustomed to having an amiable elite of chefs, nutritionists, and brands tell them what they should eat, whilst walking heavy-hearted up supermarket aisles hoping that the prices haven’t rocketed again. A populace who eat ever-less meat and ever-more chicken; which is, if possible, already cut up and seasoned because it is also important to save time. Who search between homogenous, firm, out-of-season fruits and vegetables for the same things: tomato, lettuce, potato. Or ready-made salads. Who learnt that food has to be hyper-pasteurised to be safe. A country full of cooking shows, collectable pullouts, books by celebrity chefs: a country where all the time they are telling you the recipe for which you don’t have the ingredients.
At the same time, Argentina hides – not so much shamefully, but conveniently – sombre hunger statistics (which in 2012 reached 2 million people, according to the Observatorio de la Deuda Social of the Universidad Católica Argentina), and doesn’t have verified figures on illness, although doctors indicate there are ever-increasing numbers of people who suffer obesity, Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, people who suffer an unthinkable variety of cancers: all because of the growing habit of eating a lot of some things, not eating any of others, following arbitrary diets, not having the money to eat better or more, not knowing what you are eating, or living close to places where food is produced.
So, which of these countries are we really? The one we believe ourselves to be, or the one we consume? The one that comes out in economics and country supplements? The one that comes out in guidebooks and gourmet magazines? Or the one that doesn’t come out anywhere?
The conclusion is as easy as it is overwhelming: we are all of them. Because, above all things, we live in a country where food is no longer what is used to be: something that was there simply to feed us.
This book began with three questions: What do we eat? Why? And what effect is this having on us? It is about such universal doubts that in the United States and Europe attempts to answer them have lead to an entire parallel industry. There are specialised journalists, entire supplements in newspapers and magazines, books and documentaries such as ‘Food, Inc.’, ‘The Future of Food’, and ‘The World According to Monsanto’, which have been unveiling to the public where their food comes from for the past five years. Animals who live in minuscule spaces, surrounded by an unbreathable air, medicated, driven crazy by stress, biting and eating one another, infected with bacteria, staggering on their fragile bones. Fruits and vegetables full of chemicals. Cereals created in laboratories which are tested directly on consumers. And an environment which could collapse at any given moment.
The explanation behind this phenomenon is also global: since modern society – busy with other things, without time for anything, overflowing and urbanised to the extreme – delegated the production of what is being put into mouths to a giant food industry, nothing is what it used to be. Essentially because the logic of the markets is singular: make as much money in as little time as possible. Not nourish, not look after, not even be healthy: simple make as much money as possible.
Are we in Argentina the living reflection of what has happened in those countries? What are our idiosyncrasies? What is the path taken by food to reach our supermarket shelves?
From the cities nothing can be seen: as such, to know what we are eating it is essential to travel the productive core: the pampa provinces, some in the north, and the coasts. It is then that all the actors appear, each with their own system: those who are large-scale producers, those chacareros who are coming to the end of their era, and those small farmers and peasants who are trying to survive whilst everything around them is changing. As well as those who no longer produce as they don’t have the means or the place.
So, it is in the crack that opens up between them – between the immense number of those who are excluded from a world that is ceasing to exist and the few giants who are constructing the new one – that the most serious problems come to light. Those that we serve every day at the table, although we are ignorant to them.
Because Argentina is, above all, a political and corporate bet, with all its implications.
A short-term gamble, which is reflected in a plan that was presented in September 2011 in Tecnopolis.
Sat at white-clothed tables, below faint blue lights, in front of empty plates, the largest agricultural producers, soy businessmen, deans of different universities, agricultural school professors, CEOs of the largest laboratories, prominent scientists, governors from the core producing provinces, automotive businessmen, seed producers, ministers, and social leaders could be seen. Decorating the salon and its surroundings were cloned wool-less sheep, and bi-transgenic cows, hybrid orchids, bales of hay, old tractors, Toyota Hiluxes and powerful Amarok trucks. Billboards of grains, apples, goats. Rooms with test tubes of colours which emulated experiments. It was in this meeting that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made the most ambitious announcement in recent years: the Strategic Agrifood Plan, looking ahead to 2020 (PEA 2020).
Produced by 45 universities, municipalities, business chambers, and politicians of different levels, the PEA is a document of a little over a hundred pages, which traces a clear and overwhelming path for all the productive forces: Argentina will increase its grain production by 60% in under ten years, further intensifying the production of that which had been sown in patchwork because the industrialised world needed it: soy. Grains to feed animals – above all Chinese pigs – and to produce oils and biofuel, also for export. For this to be possible, the reorganisation of food production would be deepened: more chickens in sheds, hens in cages, pigs confined, cows in feedlots, vegetable gardens in greenhouses, stunted fruit trees.
Everything is squeezed.
And that which isn’t, disappears.
Including the rural, peasant, and indigenous populations, the fishing populations, the small producers, the forests, the wetlands.
And the rest grows, expands, willing to cover everything.
Armed with an arsenal that includes bulldozers, large and modern machinery, millions of litres of agrochemicals and multinationals’ genetically-modified seeds, the industrial agricultural frontier that produces commodities listed highly in the world’s stock markets expands in an unlimited way, whilst wrecking what is left in a country that historically knew how to make healthy food for everybody.
The outlined revolution is total. A countryside without small farmers. A countryside without food. Food on Argentine’s tables of ever-worsening quality.
At the same time that this is happening, nearly invisible on the other side of the road, in all corners of our country there are people who are warning of the fallout: biologists, agricultural engineers, chemists, doctors, sociologists, anthropologists, nutritionists, businessmen, cooks, victims, activists, and independent journalists who work strenuously to make clear the serious consequences of our industrial system of production.
The meat we eat has ever more saturated fats, antibiotics, and E-coli.
The chickens and eggs have fewer nutrients and more bacteria.
The fruits and vegetables are full of dangerous toxins that almost nobody is controlling, but that sooner or later will reach us all, including those who eat organic fruits and vegetables.
There are increasingly fewer fish in the rivers and sea.
Feedlots, intensive pig breeding places, and barns of chickens are large and cruel cities of animals which contaminate the water and land with chemical run-off.
Soy is destroying the ground: experts give the Pampas 30 years of fertile life and the north ten.
The forests are in risk of extinction: less than 30% of original forests are left and every hour 36 football pitches of native trees disappear, mostly to make room for soy; this has a direct effect on the climate – the droughts, the floods –, on the biodiversity, and on the lives of those who try to survive in this ecosystem.
The almost 300 million litres of agrochemicals are used each year in the country are poisoning to death the 12 million people who live in rural areas.
Inland, the biggest shift is the migration to urban peripheries: to shanty towns, social housing, to roadsides next to farms. To places where nobody has much to do other than wait the help of the State. Help which is solved with the income that is generated by the same productive system that has driven them out of the countryside, feeding a vicious circle that will be fatal if it continues.
Because what is lost when these cultures disintegrate is not just people but also their wisdom: how to cultivate the land without chemicals or seeds from multinationals, how to look after plants and animals, how to consolidate a culture of local, sustainable production. How to feed.
This book is a trip through all of these situations. It starts with one of the foods that has most changed in recent years (the chicken) and journeys through towns that seem to be industrial factories, animal farms that are torture camps on the inside, breeding places that are watched over as if hiding illegal businesses, poisonous crops and places that are not only to do with animals, grains, and plants, but also with State policies, market logics, with plans, with marketing and advertising, with shady deals that are cooked behind our backs.
But, also, it is an encounter with these people who are in conflict, working for a better system. Farmers who are moving away from agrochemicals and turning to agroecology, farms which are operating like countercultural revolutions, professionals who think of alternatives for everybody. They prove there is a way out: a way out that is not in being better consumers, but, in any case, in converting into a society that exercises a responsible democracy. Sovereign. A society in which we are willing to open our eyes, to stop eating each other, to stop eating the future.
This book is then a denouncement, a challenge, and an invitation. For those who want to recuperate the pleasure of food and believe that knowledge is the only path. For those who want a healthier, fairer country that is not killing off its population, its land, and its culture for immediate economic gain. For those who sense that they are eating badly and want to change course to a place in which this will never happen again.
Read Kristie Robinson’s interview with Malcomidos author Soledad Barruti.