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China's Meat Craving Could Fuel Argentina Export Boom

Argentina, one of the world's big meat exporters, could earn itself a fortune exporting to China. For now the Argentine government is more focused on avoiding shortages at home.

A "choripan" chef in Buenos Aires, Argentina
A "choripan" chef in Buenos Aires, Argentina

BUENOS AIRES — China's voracious and growing appetite for meat should be great news for Argentina, one of the world's biggest meat exporters and a country in dire need of boosting foreign trade.

Business ties between the two states were recently confirmed with an official visit to China by an Argentinian delegation led by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The two sides reached a crucial agreement that fine-tunes existing protocols on the hygiene of meat products.

Seemingly overnight, China — already a crucial consumer market for so many economies — has become the planet's leading beef importer, a sign of prosperity and its citizens' adoption, for better or worse, of "Western" eating habits.

As recently as 15 years ago, China imported virtually no food products. Yet even then, writer Lester Brown could foresee changes, observing in Who Will Feed China? that the world's most populous country had overcome the hunger problem but would soon face another challenge, that of changing eating habits. A society that emerges from poverty and betters its living standards consumes more animal proteins in all their forms.

Beef is the highest stage of this dietary transition. China is already the biggest consumer of pork meat products, with chicken close behind. The KFC chain — owned by Yum!, the world's biggest food firm — opens a store in China every 16 hours.

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In Beijing — Photo: Tom Caswell

To meet such demand, China has increased domestic production and is also vacuuming up soy worldwide, this being a key component of livestock feed.

A tax blunder

While it managed to export some of its excess soy production in 1996, this year the country will import 75 million tons of soy, 50% more than Argentina's production. Again, while in 2008 investment bank Goldman Sachs spoke of buying a dozen pig farms in the Hengyang area, last year China bought the biggest U.S. food producer, Smithfield Foods. It is also buying 51% of Nidera and Noble, two seeds and grains firms, to consolidate the irreversible flow of basic food products toward China.

Self-sufficiency is much more complex when it comes to beef, which is an enormous opportunity for Argentina. Or would be, if the rules had not changed for producers here. In spite of an incipient recovery in beef stocks, this follows the 2009-10 debacle when officials decided to penalize exportation with the "clever" idea that this would assure domestic meat supplies. They were mistaken, because incentives for exportation would have boosted production overall, both in terms of animal numbers and weight per head.

There were no incentives of course and exporters still have to pay a 15% export tax. This is a real glitch for a high value-added product with a range of spin-off revenues — through the refrigeration industry for example, which creates the most jobs in quantitative and qualitative terms. Stricter exportation conditions also help boost quality and security for domestic supplies.

The export industry is in deep crisis, especially those firms that arrived here 10 years ago hoping to exploit a promising global market. These included Brazil's leading animal protein producers JBS, BRF and Marfrig, whose arrival was a strategic decision taken by the Brazilian presidency. Most of their plants today stand idle or are barely running. With current livestock prices, they would need some kind of fiscal or sanitary magic to become competitive again. China is waiting.

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Indigenous Women Of Ecuador Set Example For Sustainable Agriculture

In southern Ecuador, a women-led agricultural program offers valuable lessons on sustainable farming methods, but also how to end violence.

Photo of women walking in Ecuador

Women walking in Guangaje Ecuador

Camila Albuja

SARAGURO — Here in this corner of southern Ecuador, life seems to be like a mandala — everything is cleverly used in this ancestral system of circular production. But the women of Saraguro had to fight and resist to make their way of life, protecting the local water and the seeds. When weaving, the women share and take care of each other, also weaving a sense of community.

With the wrinkled tips of her fingers, Mercedes Quizhpe, an indigenous woman from the Kichwa Saraguro people, washes one by one the freshly harvested vegetables from her garden. Standing on a small bench, with her hands plunged into the strong torrent of icy water and the bone-chilling early morning breeze, she checks that each one of her vegetables is ready for fair day. Her actions hold a life of historical resistance, one that prioritizes the care of life through the defense of territory and food sovereignty.

Mercedes' way of life is also one that holds many potential lessons for how to do agriculture and tourism better.

In the province of Loja, work begins before sunrise. At 5:00 a.m., the barking of dogs, the guardians of each house, starts. There is that characteristic smell of damp earth from the morning dew. Sheep bah uninterruptedly through the day. With all this life around, the crowing of early-rising roosters doesn't sound so lonely.

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