[Marxism] Change for the worse in Argentina

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 10 06:00:01 MDT 2009

Day of the Gaucho Waning in Argentina
Cattle Being Moved Off Plains and Into U.S.-Style Feedlots

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 10, 2009

MAGDALENA, Argentina -- Cattle once ruled the seemingly endless 
grasslands here, delivering decades of prosperity for Argentina and 
producing a brand familiar to the world -- natural, grass-fed beef.

But a quiet revolution has arrived on the famously fertile pampa, a 
swath of plains bigger than Texas.

Instead of roaming freely and eating to their hearts' content, a growing 
number of Argentine cattle are spending a third of their lives in 
U.S.-style feedlots. There, crammed in muddy corrals, they are pumped 
with antibiotics and fed mounds of protein-rich grain, which fattens 
them up fast but hardly conjures up the romantic image of the Argentine 
cowboy, the iconic gaucho, lassoing cattle on the high plains.

It is an image ranch hand Tomás Leclercq cherishes. The strapping, 
ruddy-faced 58-year-old has been working with cattle since boyhood. Like 
any Argentine, Leclercq knows his beef -- he likes it grilled on a spit, 
a tad red, tender as butter. The reason Argentina's meat is so lean and 
juicy, he contends, is that cattle here have traditionally rambled 
across miles of plains, chomping grass until winding up as succulent steaks.

"There's a big difference between grass-fed beef and feedlot beef," said 
Leclercq, who manages about 250 head of cattle for a Buenos Aires 
businessman and eats meat daily. "Beef raised on the plains is better, 
but there is less and less of it because the land is going for 
agriculture, so the feedlots are multiplying."

Indeed, all over the pampa, ranchland that was home to Angus and 
Hereford cows has in recent years been replaced by fields of soybeans, 
corn and wheat as commodity prices skyrocketed by more than 300 percent. 
This year, a third of the 15 million animals expected to go to slaughter 
will fatten up in the now-ubiquitous feedlots, three times as many as in 

The Argentine government established export restrictions and price 
controls to keep beef prices artificially low, and a currency 
devaluation made exporters of cash crops more competitive. Agricultural 
subsidies also helped make corn feed affordable for cattlemen, allowing 
them to move their animals off the land. The combination of factors 
resulted in many farmers switching from cattle to crops over the past 

At the same time, Argentina, though a powerhouse in agriculture, has 
slipped from the dominant position it had long enjoyed in the 
international beef market. Once the No. 1 meat exporter, Argentina today 
is seventh. The vast majority of the meat it produces is consumed 
domestically; most of the rest is exported to Europe, elsewhere in South 
America and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

It's all enough to make an old gaucho grieve for the past -- but there 
are no laments in Rodrigo Troncoso's fashionable offices in Buenos Aires.

General manager of the Argentine Feedlot Chamber, Troncoso has a 
master's degree in agribusiness and travels to other major 
cattle-producing countries, including the United States, to study their 
latest techniques. Troncoso said he expects that more than 60 percent of 
Argentina's cattle will pass through feedlots in five years.

"I'm not a romantic," he said, referring to those who pine for the old 
days in cattle country. "Argentina sold this image to the world to 
position itself -- that was the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. But the 
reality is all the rest of the world went the other way."

 From Australia to the United States, the world's top cattle producers 
have been penning up cattle for years. Troncoso said that if Argentina 
wants to take advantage of the world's growing appetite for meat, then 
it, too, must become a more efficient producer of beef.

Critics call the process unnatural, saying all mass-produced meat tastes 
the same.

"Of course, the taste is very different," said Claudio Schonfeld, a 
member of the Argentine Angus Association, considered among the most 
traditional of all the cattlemen's groups. "There's a lack of 
cholesterol in the meat because the cow that feeds on grass has to roam 
great distances to eat."

Feedlot beef tastes more like pork, said Luis Alberto Nieva, standing 
near a side of beef slowly roasting over a wood-burning fire outside his 
friend Leclercq's house. "Grass is the best feed for animals," Nieva 
said. "Corral meat tastes different. They give them many things to eat, 
and you don't know what they're giving them."

Few disagree as vehemently as Troncoso. He said that grass-fed beef will 
always have a market but that grain-fed meat looks more appealing and 
has a juicy, rich taste. "Who is to say what's natural and what's not 
natural?" Troncoso said. "What's natural is for a cow to grow, to 
reproduce and to die."

That's exactly what happens to the cattle at the Santa Maria feedlot 
here in Magdalena. Heifers and small bulls seven or eight months old are 
trucked in weighing about 400 pounds each, after having grazed on grass. 
Three months later, at 600 pounds but still young and tender, they are 
ready to be served up with a side of fries and a glass of the local 
Malbec. The remarkable growth is due to a high-energy, high-protein diet 
of wheat, corn and soy.

"This is a factory to produce meat," explained Sebastián Saparrat, the 
administrator, noting that 20,000 head of cattle are produced annually 
at Santa Maria.

Walking on a dirt road lined with pens, Saparrat recalled how he "felt 
bad" when he started working at Santa Maria nine years ago and saw 
cattle in corrals. But he said he has come to appreciate the efficiency 
of it all -- how 7,000 animals take up scarcely 12 acres. To grass-feed 
that many animals, he said, would require 13,000 acres.

"Today, it's impossible really to fatten up 7,000 cows in one place on 
grass," he said.

The cattle from Santa Maria, and many of those produced across this 
stretch of pampa, are then shipped off to the sprawling, 108-year-old 
Liniers cattle auction in a Buenos Aires barrio called Mataderos, 
"slaughterhouses" in Spanish. As many as 12,000 animals come through 
daily. Men representing local butchers stand on catwalks above the pens, 
buying animals that are slaughtered hours later. Increasingly the cattle 
come from feedlots, the buyers said.

Edgardo Zaldibar, 49, has worked at Liniers since he was 16, helping 
round up cattle on horseback. His father, 72, has worked in the market 
for 60 years, and his grandfather worked there, too. Zaldibar called 
himself a man of tradition but said he has no problem with the new trend 
-- he eats beef every day and likes the feedlot variety.

"This is modernity, I suppose," he said, taking a break from herding. 
"But I don't think that this is bad -- it's modernity, and you have to 
adapt yourself."

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