Journalist Soledad Barruti, 32, is the author of ‘Malcomidos: How the Argentine food industry is killing us’, an investigation into the country’s industrialised food production system. The production model in question is not new, but has become entrenched since the government’s 2011 Strategic Agrifood Plan (PEA), which plots a 60% national increase in grain production by 2020. Direct results of the PEA are an increase in deforestation as the agricultural frontier expands, the removal of cattle from fields into sheds to make room for crops – namely soy – and a massive increase in the use of agrochemicals.
Released at the end of last year, ‘Malcomidos’ paints a dark picture, unveiling a complete lack of policing of deforestation and the use of agrochemicals, as well as repression of activists who are fighting against the system. It also reveals a two-tier system: whereas the grains produced for export take up a vast majority of the country’s land, and food for export is of international regulatory standards, the internal food market seems left to pick up the – often toxic – scraps. Whilst the country is the world’s second-biggest organic food exporter, and beef for export comes from grass-fed cows roaming the pampas, the internal market innocently receives fruits and vegetables full of toxins and meat from feedlots pumped full of antibiotics. One of the consequences is a country with the world’s highest rate of haemolytic-uremic syndrome, a foodborne illness caused by E.coli that can be fatal.
‘Malcomidos’ 450 pages are a culmination of three years’ work, which saw Barruti travelling around the country and visiting producers, seeing deforestation first hand, and talking to doctors, lawyers, and activists who are on the front-line of the fight against the new agricultural model. Kristie Robinson sat down with Barruti to talk about the book and what she hopes more awareness of the food system can bring.
Read an exclusive translation of the introduction to ‘Malcomidos’.
How did the idea for ‘Malcomidos’ come about?
In a way I kind of ended up writing the book I wanted to read and couldn’t find. I had read a lot of books about how food is produced from overseas – from the US, from Europe, even from Brazil – that were trying to unravel this food industry, which is just a massive industry and the one that has most influence on our daily lives. And I realised I had a lot of questions and a lot of doubts about how food is produced and nobody was answering them. As you can’t really compare the agricultural situations of two different countries, so I wondered, well, is it the same here as it is in the US? And in Argentina nobody had ever proposed this – we have this idea that here it is more natural. We have this ideal of a rural country that is very traditional; not one where the beef comes from a feedlot and the chicken is pumped full of drugs – and this is actually how it has been for years now. I was even surprised too – I didn’t think it was already so extremely industrialised here.
What advice do you have for somebody who has read ‘Malcomidos’ and now wants to now change their habits?
The problem is that it’s hard here. I think we have become accustomed to eating badly. It’s expensive to eat well, and that’s really sad. We live in a context where buying fruit and vegetables is a luxury. And I am talking normal ones full of pesticides. The government has their new price agreement and there is practically no fresh produce. There are 15 drinks – between soft drinks and synthetic juices, and just nine fruit and vegetables. Of those nine, none of them are seasonal. Not one. Perhaps if it was July then I would understand, but in summer, in this country, it’s just pathetic. So if you already take this context, it makes it hard for there to be a growing market for organic produce. There is no way to compete in a way that means those products are not just for an elite.
There’s also a big price difference when it comes to chicken, eggs, and dairy products. The only way to buy non-feedlot meat in the city is to buy meat that is for export, which is much more expensive. Pork – forget it. In the cities you are only buying meat off pigs raised in an industrialised way. I follow an almost vegetarian diet. As it’s very complicated. The fish tends to be good and fresh, if you have a good fishmonger, then that is an option. But again, it’s not cheap.
Also, avoiding high-fructose corn syrup is really impossible. You basically have to give up eating many processed foods forever. There are also a large number of colourings and preservatives that are still being used here that have been banned in other countries for years now. Here they are in the foods and the only law is that they are on the label.
You have to read everything.
Yeah, but then what do you do with that information? If you go to the supermarket to read the labels, you end up not being able to buy anything.
So for this to change, what needs to happen?
For me there are two paths. One is the need to demand certain controls in terms of changing those practices that are actually dangerous. The lack of control over agrochemicals is something that is really quite unique to Argentina. Producers basically put what they want, as much as they want, depending on the price or the season. Anyone can go and buy a litre of glyphosate and they sell it to you, and even worse, more poisonous things too. So on the one hand we have to demand that those are controlled as it’s just incredible. The only group which is supposedly controlling is SENASA [National Service for Agrifood Health and Quality] who are super corrupt and a complete disaster, and don’t do anything properly. So the government needs to act, to improve controls on what is in our food.
On the other hand, there is a productive model that needs to be rethought, taking into account the people, who have fallen by the wayside. Find a way to bring back the idea of family farming – bring new players into that system. We had ‘chacareros’, people who had smallholdings with animals and orchards and vegetable gardens. These are all now massive soy fields. And we don’t even need to be thinking about agroecology, but just about more diversity in our food. There are a lot of people who want to turn to ecological agriculture and they can’t, because they don’t have access to the land, it’s expensive to change the land too.
How much do you blame teaching? In universities the only production system taught is large-scale, industrialised production.
Yes, this is the only model taught. There is an interesting movement in the universities. There are food sovereignty classes, which are open classes, that are growing in a lot of universities, which think about the productive system – the productive matrix – in a different way. But then in the vet sciences, for example, only intensive animal production is taught. Nothing else, and it’s incredible. When I asked why, they said because there was no other way to produce here.
That’s astonishing. And not true.
Yup. You should have the choice to produce chickens whichever way you want, but producing chickens any other way is seen as ‘hippie’.
But you obviously think that another model is possible…
Not only is it possible, it’s essential. It’s the only way.
But the government funds a lot of social programmes with agricultural revenue – could another model generate the same profits to be able to pay for these things?
I think the whole system is badly thought out. Firstly they think of the containment of people, not about people as active participants or as people with possibilities. They think of one way of life, which is an urban way of life, of people as consumers. The country is doing well when the consumption ball is rolling. So you have a lot of people who don’t even have a house but have $800 trainers, a plasma, and satellite TV. So firstly you have that idea of a model, of ‘progress’. And then you have the containment of the people who are not invited to participate in the system, as there are physical limits to the number of people a city can really offer possibilities to, to make them active participants. It is not infinite. So those who don’t exist as active citizens are qualitatively contained, with social programmes.
For me these plans are disastrous.
You could have a country that produces from its rural spaces, like it always used to. What I am proposing is almost an agrarian revolution, because in this country the concept of hundreds of thousands of hectares owned by one person is normal. So you also have to think how to restructure the land, to give those who want an alternative the chance to be active actors in society again.
Do you think the effect that this system is having on people is a side effect, or do you think it was considered?
No, I think the system is the system. And systems have their own rules. I don’t have conspiracy theories that there is someone conspiring so that this works in a certain way – I think this works, and it works for the government to have people for whom the government is absolutely necessary. For these people the government is vital for their day-to-day existence. These people lived with insecurity, and the government has given them food. They only exist due to state intervention. So they are ‘voting machines’ and at the same time they consume, keeping the economy working. It’s really sad. But it is functional.
Do you think this could change with a change of government?
No. The productive model is not in crisis, when people talk they talk about insecurity, unemployment. It’s like we have a jigsaw puzzle where only five pieces are being seen, and the bigger picture is something we are blind to. So it’s like, well here we have insecurity, here we have poverty, here we have a stagnant economy, and nobody has realised that it is all connected. There is no political opposition to this productive model. The opposition comes with ideas to combat insecurity, ideas to combat poverty, ideas for education, but they are also unable to see the bigger picture.
And within the government nobody is seeing the bigger picture either?
No. Just like the opposition, they think of each problem as a separate thing. And the system is working – although it’s a really wild form of capitalism, a more radical form of capitalism – it’s like, let’s exploit all of the natural resources. But it’s really destructive. And it will be very hard to come back from.
So how do you see the future?
What gives me hope is that it is a really new problem, and there are also a growing number of people who want to learn agroecology. But we have been really slow to criticise the system and the production. If this can be a subject that is on the agenda, then we still have time to change things. But we have to get it on the agenda – it has to become an issue, we have to be able to openly speak about it and criticise the system, and unfortunately the big interests here don’t want that to happen. All those who speak about these issues in the media have been bought by the system, directly or indirectly.
But there is a growing movement against at least parts of the system – there have been many marches against Monsanto, for example. Does this demonisation of Monsanto help?
Obviously Monsanto is evil – I think they are one of the most perverse companies of recent times, and an emblem of the chemical century that we are transiting, but I think sometimes by focusing on just them, it makes many not be able to see the wood for the trees. There are a lot of corporations like them. And if Monsanto disappears, the productive system that exists won’t just disappear, which is what has left us in this terrible place: we are the country that produces food for animals in China. There is a lot that we have to undo, and in many sectors.
You have to remember that in Argentina those who most actively take up the fight are the victims of the agrochemicals – people who have lost a lot because of this model – you can’t ask them to be subdued. So what you often see (and what the media often like to portray with this idea of the activist fighting the system), are people who are so angry, so passionately angry, that they end up seeming ridiculous to those in the media, who are so close to the corporations that they end up being spokespeople for the industry.
For example there was a campaign to do a blood test and see what chemicals you had in your blood. I did it. For many it was ‘I have Monsanto chemicals in my blood!’ No! We don’t have Monsanto’s chemicals in our blood – we have chemicals in our blood! Perhaps they are from Monsanto, but we are clouding the issue.
In these things I think this is a country which is too passionate – if we were a little calmer and thought more about our arguments, using our heads a bit more than our hearts, we would stop and take stock and say: ‘Wait a minute, if we are all shouting so loudly, nobody can hear us.’ The situation is already bad enough that we don’t actually need to underline that ‘and also Monsanto is going to patent your breast milk’, because it ends up being a devil so big that it is impossible to take down. Kind of like a caricature of a Harry Potter monster.
With this growing movement, why do you think the romantic notion of the ‘campo’ remains in much of mainstream Argentine society?
I think because it is really difficult to actually think about where what you eat comes from. Those anti-Monsanto protestors chomping down on high-fructose corn syrup-containing products [that Monsanto’s seeds and fertilisers grow] are the perfect example. It is hard to break that myth, especially as for years and years it has been so important. There is also an entire culture constructed around eating meat here. Despite all the feedlots, we still think we are eating the best meat in the world.
What was the thing that surprised you most when investigating the book?
Deforestation in El Impenetrable [Chaco’s native forest]. Such evident destruction of a place – I had never seen anything like that in my life before. The scale of the damage. Massive machines tearing trees down. Fields that had been set on fire. Rubbish dumps in the middle of nowhere. This apocalyptic image of destruction of life. You think you can imagine it, but when you see it – I was completely in shock for quite some time. That and also the cities of animals. The huge factory farms, with nobody questioning the brutality of them.
So what is next?
I want to keep doing things with this. With ‘Malcomidos’ perhaps I will film something – maybe a documentary. And I am also starting to work on a new project – another book – to do with what is happening in our country and in the region with food and children. As we are leaving a horrific legacy – the next generations will have it much worse than us.
Malcomidos is published by Planeta and is on sale for $169. For more information, visit their Facebook page.